Don’t Stand So Close To Me: Students and Faculty Return to Campus

Sophia Chau and Ava De Leon

A worldwide pandemic, national unrest, and murder hornets sound like they belong in the description of a dystopian novel set in the 22nd century. Unfortunately, all those events and more have happened in the current year of 2020, and students and teachers around the world have been dealing with it throughout the year.

On March 16, Austin Independent School District (AISD) announced that schools would be closed until April 3, 2020. After many pushed back dates, it was decided that schools would not be opened for the remainder of the school year, and the LASA community got its first taste of online school. In August, it was announced that LASA would be having online classes for the first four weeks of school, and since then, students and teachers alike have had to adapt and adjust to having school entirely online. However, recently, faculty and students have been returning back to campus, changing the school environment yet again.

Students are separated into teacher’s rooms, and every person is required to wear masks. WiFi is provided for classes, and students, like junior Ita Hernandez-Hernandez, are on their computers the entire time. 

“You sit in the classroom and you have your computer out, and you use the WiFi of the school, and you do online classes, but the teachers are just there to also do their classes, it’s very online influenced,” Hernandez-Hernandez said. “It’s just very bizarre.”

Like Hernandez-Hernandez, junior Suhas Gillipelli chose to go to physical school as opposed to staying at home. He had mixed feelings about returning, and talked about the benefits he has experienced by being at school.

“I prefer the convenience of being at home,” Gillipelli said, “but being able to focus at school better and having that accountability is very helpful. So I guess it is a tradeoff between convenience and accountability.”

Hernandez-Hernandez also talked about how being at school has helped her complete her school work more efficiently and stay focused. She struggled with differentiating between school work and home life.

“I decided to go to school in order to try and find a way to concentrate more on my work because when I was at home, I really wasn’t motivated to do my work,” Hernandez-Hernandez said. “I wanted to try and separate both my personal room with my work room.”

Not only students, but teachers as well, have been struggling with changing their mindsets and adapting to the new norms of school. Math teacher Andrew Stepek, who returned to school, has encountered challenges in changing his teaching methods and curriculum.

“I think the biggest change that we have had to accept and make adjustments for is that the group-based, student-driven learning that we’re so fond of, and I’m so fond of, it’s just not really happening,” Stepek said.

Great Ideas teacher Jack Cunningham teaches a discussion-based required course for sophomores at LASA. Cunningham said that he and his students have had some issues with having discussions in class but that there have also been some upsides to technology features.

“Sometimes, it’s hard for students to get their voice heard in that 30-40 minutes that we are in a discussion, so the chat has been a good feature for students to chime in on things even when there’s another conversation happening,” Cunningham said.

Science teacher David Walker talked about the faculty-wide improvement of technological understanding and has credited online schooling to helping teachers become familiar with online resources. 

“Teachers were motivated to change their curriculum,” Walker said. “I think a large-scale modernization took place amongst teachers. A lot of teachers have gotten a lot more acquainted with how BLEND works, with how students can turn in work remotely, and that might be more efficient than doing it real time.”

Principal Stacia Crescenzi has acknowledged the hardships that teachers at LASA have had to deal with over the past few months. She talked about the constant changes in the school schedule and how that affects teachers and their courses.

“Every time there’s a change in the A/B calendar, every time there’s a change in the school calendar, they have to go back and rewrite some of that curriculum,” Crescenzi said. “So I think that that’s been an ongoing process and one that’s honestly very stressful to teachers.”

Crescenzi could not say for sure when there would be a definite answer to the situation at hand. Decisions have been made according to the ongoing and upcoming issues and have been changed accordingly.

“Nobody really understands or can predict with certainty the progression of the virus,” Crescenzi said. “So we’re making decisions about bringing students back, we’re making decisions about the logistics of do we use interior classrooms or not, do teachers need extra fans, is there a way to keep the windows open, do we need air diffusers in the classroom, the really basic logistical kinds of stuff, with ever-changing information.”

Some teachers, like Stepek, have questioned whether or not it would be plausible to move classes outside. This adaption would allow students and teachers to effectively socially distance from each other.

“What I really just don’t understand, not just at the school, not just at this district, but across the state, across anywhere where the weather is nice in the winter, why aren’t we not talking about having school outside?” Stepek said. “Because it’s the obvious and most important safety precaution that you can have. If we’re going to have 20-25 students, we should be outside, not in an enclosed room.”

Recently, a new change has been made to the schedule which introduced Flex Fridays, an asynchronous work day for Friday classes. Students and teachers work on their own instead of attending Zoom meetings.

“The adults also needed some breathing room to collaborate with their colleagues, to get papers graded and back to students, and to be able to put things in place so that if kids have questions, if kids need reviews for things, they can set up blocks of time and meet those needs,” Crescenzi said.

Even with the introduction of Flex Fridays, there are still some aspects of the school day that are just not the same as they used to be, according to Stepek. He misses the social interaction that comes from teaching every day.

“A big part of why I like this job is because I get to have fun interactions most of the day with fun and interesting people, and that still happens to an extent, but it’s to a far less extent,” Stepek said. “Although, it’s getting better, with people getting more comfortable with communicating with each other.”

Walker has had to adjust to not seeing his students every day including some of his students from previous years. He talked about the difficulty of not being in his own classroom.

“I just miss seeing students,” Walker said. “I miss seeing my colleagues. I miss the advantages of being in a physical classroom in terms of what that allows me to do as a teacher.”

Despite the obstacles, according to Walker, students and teachers have handled the situation exceptionally well. He praised the patience and hard work of the students as the curriculum changes online and as more developments are made in terms of returning to campus.

“It’s not perfect, it’s definitely not as good as it would be if it were normal,” Walker said. “There are a lot of problems, but I think that’s been the biggest take away for me: is how amazing our student population is in dealing with all this.”

On Nov. 2, the school will be allowed to have 100% capacity, which means even more students will be allowed back on campus and able to switch classes during a passing period. Teachers who do not have an accomodation are also expected to return to the classroom, but this poses a problem for teachers who are taking care of an at-risk family member, which doesn’t constitute an exemption from returning to school. Cunningham is worried about the risks this might involve and how students will react to this opportunity.

“Part of my worry is that if students are going to be switching classes again, there might be seen to be some academic advantage to going back to campus because you’ll be seeing your teachers,” Cunningham said.

Crescenzi wants students and parents to be fully aware of the situation and the impact it will have on their schooling. However, she does not want to discourage students from doing something that is absolutely necessary or beneficial for their families.

“You want to be appropriately fearful and cautious, but you don’t want that caution to keep you from doing what you know might be in the best interest of many students and many families,” Crescenzi said.

Stepek is not thrilled about the fact that teachers are required to go back to school unless they have an accommodation granted by AISD. He voiced his opinion about teachers not being given the same choice as students and parents.

“AISD has made a big thing for all their parents, you know, you have a choice, you can leave your students virtual all year, send them back in person, well, that choice doesn’t exist if you’re one of AISD’s teachers and you’re also an AISD parent. You pretty much have to send them back.” Stepek said. “It feels very unfair, and I think we’re going to potentially lose some good teachers because of that.”

Recently, it was announced some teachers from LASA would be forced to resign due to their inability to return to school in person. Walker expressed his concern about the threats of returning to school as early as Nov. 2 and explained how much he values his job.

“At some point, they probably are going to require students to come back to school and require me to come back to school with students,” Walker said. “At that point, I am going to have to evaluate my job and how much teaching means to me in comparison to my health and how much my health means to me. Which is an unfortunate position that a lot of people are being put in.”

This year has also been marred with concerns about funding. While the remainder of the school year is fully funded, due to predetermined funding, there are concerns with how next year will fare mainly because of lower attendance and higher costs for safety measures.

“A lot of families will say, ‘Alright, well if my kindergartener is going to have to do a lot of work virtually, why not just wait a year and send them to kindergarten next year?’ And then, you have less revenue,” Crescenzi said.

Teachers are encouraging students to stay home and only return to school if absolutely necessary. Stepek understands the challenges his students face with online school but continues to advocate for staying home.

“The best thing that you can do is, unless you have an academic need, or a physical health need, or a mental health need to come back to school, if virtual learning is working for you, stay at home,” Stepek said. “That’s the best thing that you can do for your teachers right now.”

Another thing teachers would like is more information. Teachers like Cunningham are looking for answers and some sort of confirmation about what will happen with schools in the future.

“I’d just like a little bit more certainty from all levels,” Cunningham said. “From state level, TEA, from district level, and from the campus level, too. Just certainty on what’s happening.”

Crescenzi urged families and educators to be patient with the process and wait for effective and finalized decisions. She also encourages students to provide their teachers with feedback and praise.

“Be patient when things don’t go perfectly, and really give teachers feedback when it goes well,” Crescenzi said.

Despite all the challenges, Stepek acknowledged that the blame doesn’t lie solely in the hands of the district or LASA’s administration. Instead, he put the blame on a much larger source.

“As frustrated as I sound, I do recognize that a lot of these issues certainly aren’t coming from our administration,” Stepek said. “To an extent, they’re coming from a district administration, but to a far greater extent, they’re coming from our state government or our federal government, who just like to sit on their hands and they do jack.”