As COVID-19 hospitalizations surge in Travis County, Austin ISD superintendent urges district families to keep students home this week

Principals to devise plans to operate in-person instruction with minimal staff on campus


Senior Luke Lozano follows the news in Washington during Amy Smith’s fourth-period AP Literature class on Wednesday. There were 40 students on the Mac campus on Friday. The campus was closed today because of inclement weather. Austin ISD had all teachers and student attend classes virtually. This afternoon Superintendent Elizalde urged families to select online learning in response to a rise in COVID hospitalizatons.

Citing increased COVID-19 hospitalizations and the need for tighter restrictions, Austin ISD superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde urged Austin ISD families to keep their children at home for virtual learning during the remainder of this week in an email sent this afternoon to all families in the district. 

Elizalde explained that AISD chose to move into this format with input from local health authorities.

“This decision was made in partnership with Austin Public Health and city and county officials to help decrease the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, as well as to reduce the risk to our hospitals,” Elizalde said.

We recognize that many will be asking why we didn’t do this last week: We have been working with TEA to ensure that moving to this setting would not jeopardize our funding.

— AISD superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde

Elizalde explained that each principal will be in charge of coordinating staffing at school as long as Travis County remains in the Stage 5 risk category.

The plan for McCallum’s staffing this week was outlined at a faculty meeting this afternoon and in an email from Principal Nicole Griffith. Teachers will be in-person at school for one out of the four days the rest of this week and at home for the other three. The administration will also assure that in-person students will rotate so that they are able to meet with teachers in their designated subject area. The provision is necessary for in-person instruction to adhere to TEA standards for in-person instruction.

“We are committed to providing on-campus instruction to students who have a high need to learn on campus,” Griffith wrote in an afternoon email letter to parents. “We are also limiting the number of staff members who will be on campus at one time.  Students who have a critical need to be on campus may not have access to their assigned teacher in-person but will be able to get help from a highly qualified teacher in their subject area. All students will continue to meet virtually with their teacher regardless.”

Griffith thanked the Mac community for its continued support during this stage of the pandemic.

On the first day of the spring semester, teacher Nikki Northcutt receives a free cup of Joe from the beverage catering company Riser courtesy of the Mac PTSA. The whole faculty reported to campus for the first week of school to teach after Austin ISD announced it would not delay the start of school as recommended by Austin Public Health. But after a snow day closed campus today, the district announced it had changed course and will reduce faculty assigned to campus for the remainder for the week and while Austin Public Health assigns Travis County a Stage 5 COVID risk factor, the highest. Photo by Dave Winter.

“We will continue to work with the health officials to determine campus needs while Austin remains in Stage 5,” Griffith said. “We are a close-knit community and we greatly appreciate your support as we navigate rising health concerns around our city. … Together, we will get through this.”

Superintendent Elizalde made it clear that schools will remain open for students in need of extra support, including students with special needs. She also addressed the reason why AISD returned in-person last week as opposed to going straight to virtual learning.

“We recognize that many will be asking why we didn’t do this last week,” Elizalde said. “The reality is that we have been working with TEA to ensure that moving to this setting would not jeopardize our funding, and thus our ability to continue to pay staff.”

In addition, Elizalde explained that the inclement weather-related move to virtual learning today allowed AISD to receive full credit from TEA for the day and to continue to pay their hourly employees

Increased hospitalizations across the state are causing shutdowns beyond the educational environment.

We will continue to work with the health officials to determine campus needs while Austin remains in Stage 5.

— interim principal Nicole Griffith

On Sunday, Gov. Abbott issued Order GA 32, which requires that state Trauma Service Areas with COVID-19 hospitalizations representing 15 percent of overall hospitalizations carry out additional occupancy restrictions and others. Businesses are required to move from 75 percent occupancy to 50 percent occupancy, but Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott says that this measure is not enough to curb hospitalizations.

“The projections have been concerning for some time, and this is just the latest reminder that Austin-Travis County is experiencing a deadly surge in cases as a result of holiday gatherings and gatherings thereafter,” Escott said on the City of Austin website. “The additional restrictions placed by GA 32 alone, though, will not be enough to counterbalance this surge in cases and hospitalizations.”

Escott went on to cite other major cities in Texas currently experiencing surges in COVID numbers following the holidays. Escott asks that Austin community members take it upon themselves to protect their community by staying home.

“In other jurisdictions that hit this point prior to the Austin area, cases and hospitalizations continue their uncontrolled rise,” Escott said. “Dallas/Fort Worth is at 27 percent, San Antonio at 22 percent, and Houston at almost 20 percent and all three continue to rise. We need every person in this community to understand that exceeding our hospital capacity is now inevitable, but how far we exceed that capacity depends on all of us. Today is the day to decide to stay home and reduce risk to save our hospitals and save lives.”