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AISD officials discuss Covid-19 response

Thursday, April 16, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

Austin Independent School District officials spoke at an Austin Justice Coalition panel Wednesday night, discussing how the district and its students are coping during the Covid-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home order that has shuttered schools.

Speakers included AISD Board of Trustees President Geronimo Rodriguez, AISD Chief Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, LBJ Early College High School Principal Jon Bailey, and Anderson High School student Cai Wilson.

Bailey said the school started by contacting each family to assess the needs of family members. That involved phone calls, emails, surveys, and needs assessments. Then the school began to implement “distant, continuous learning.”

At first, only 60 percent of students were logging into the district’s online learning platform. As the district continued to follow up with students, that number began to rise.

“One student told me, ‘Mr. Bailey, I’m having trouble focusing, I’m used to having a teacher in front of me,’” he said. “This is when you have to put your counselor hat on” and figure out how to get that student engaged in the online learning platform.

Wilson said she is having most difficulty managing such a large chunk of time every day, but she manages by spending time with her family. Some of her classmates also have to manage jobs to help support their families. “The main struggle they’re having is balancing work and school.”

“I continue to be amazed by the adaptability of our students during this crisis,” said Rodriguez.

He said the district’s decision to guarantee salaries through the end of the year helps take pressure off teachers and allows them to focus on educating students from a distance. The payroll amounts to $55 million.

“The main thing is to recognize that we’re all in this together,” AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said. “And while we could have focused on academics, business as usual – it is not business as usual.”

Students, teachers and administrators have all been working in conjunction to make the virtual system work. The district has so far delivered 8,000 devices to AISD students, prioritizing those who are low-income or have special needs. “We’ve been learning along the way,” Cruz said. “It’s not perfect, nothing’s perfect.”

“We have got to do this right, and that means that we’ve got to care for each other in a way that means something,” said Zarifis.

Hawley said that the district has an equity focus as it works to respond to the crisis, and predicts that the district will be forever changed by the experience. “We are learning that it’s going to take all of us to rebuild this system.”

Zarifis said the priority should be working out what happens in August, when the fall term normally begins. “We want to plan with the district what that looks like,” he said.

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