AISD Reopens Amidst Backlash: The Argument for Safety Over Normalcy

Zoe Klein and Beck Williams

As the nation attempts to recover from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and begins to loosen restrictions intended to prevent the spread of the virus, the reopening of schools and the reinstatement of in-person instruction have become hotly contested proposals. According to an Associated Press/NORC poll, about 68% of Americans support reopening schools in some way, although they are divided as to the level of precautions they deem necessary. Though it is no question that schools will have to open at some point, it is imperative that the Austin Independent School District (AISD), as well as school boards across the country, do so in a manner that ensures the safety of both students and faculty.

On Friday, April 3, 2020, AISD closed all of its schools indefinitely to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Since that time, instruction has remained almost entirely virtual. However, due to pressure from the State of Texas and AISD parents, students now have the option to return to in-person schooling after Nov. 2. According to AISD, social distancing will be maintained when possible, and staff and students will be required to wear facial coverings to prevent the spread of the virus.

Thankfully, international studies conducted by Insights for Education and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia have found no link between reopening schools and increased COVID-19 cases. However, this does not mean that we should not be vigilant and take necessary precautions to make sure that Austin’s teachers and students are safe. Although they are generally outliers rather than the norm, there have been instances of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. For example, multiple outbreaks have been reported in Mississippi schools according to the Associated Press (AP). If we are not careful, Austin’s schools could be next.

One of the paramount concerns regarding in-person instruction is whether proper social distancing can be enforced. Throughout the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that individuals remain at least six feet apart from each other to lower the chances of spreading COVID-19. This rule is especially important to adhere to when indoors or in a confined space that increases the risk of the pandemic spreading. However, AISD has admitted that social distancing may not be enforceable in classes where a large number of students have opted to attend in person. Social distancing is so important that, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the United States could have reduced the spread of the pandemic to acceptable levels by the summer had we implemented proper distancing protocols. If AISD does not make an effort to enforce social distancing and CDC guidelines, it is not unlikely that students and teachers could become infected.

It should be noted that the decision to reopen AISD schools was not made without input from the state government. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been pressuring schools across the State of Texas to reinstate in-person schooling and threatening to revoke funding for those who do not comply. Specifically, the TEA has vowed not to fund virtual-only instruction in Austin past November. The TEA’s attempt to steamroll the school district shows a disregard for the opinions and, more importantly, lives of the teachers and students who are affected by their actions. Instead of making the best decisions for students and teachers, AISD has been forced to bend the knee to the TEA and open schools without the proper safety precautions. Ultimately, AISD’s allegiance should be to the people they serve not to a government agency with no concern for people’s lives.

Although there are major problems with Austin’s plan to reopen schools, credit should also be given where it is due. AISD has done what they can to derive the most good possible from a bad situation. While it is unfortunate that social distancing guidelines cannot be followed at all times, schools will still be required to enforce COVID-19 precautions based on CDC recommendations. For example, both students and teachers will be required to wear face masks at all times while attending, a measure that can prevent an infected person from spreading the virus to others according to Mayo Clinic. Schools will also be required to disinfect commonly used surfaces, an important provision considering COVID-19 has been found to be able to linger on certain surfaces for multiple days, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is imperative that we take any necessary measures to ensure that returning to school is a safe process for everyone involved.

As Austin prepares to go back to school, we cannot forget that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. More than 220,000 Americans have died from the virus, with millions more infected, and that number continues to increase by the day. Though the risk of widespread infections due to in-person schooling is low, this is no excuse to let our guard down. We must listen to doctors and the CDC and strive to make sure that we live up to the standards they set. We must not allow those who have no interest in the safety of our students and teachers to force us to compromise our health. And, most importantly, we must do everything we can to prevent the unnecessary loss of human life. At the end of the day, it is the people who will have to deal with the consequences of our decision making who should have the largest say on the issues. As we go back to school, we must ensure everyone’s safety no exceptions.