The Way We Work Now

I’m a School Board Member Bringing Kids Back to Classrooms. It’s Not Going Well.

‘There’s so much intensity. It’s kind of depressing.’

The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.

John Havenstrite is a school board member at the Eanes School District in Austin, Texas. He spoke with Omar L. Gallaga earlier this month about preparing for an unprecedented school year, dealing with vitriol from parents, and coordinating reopening plans for a district that covers six elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school, and an adult transition center.

We didn’t know what exactly to expect in June when the schools closed for the year. We knew we weren’t really delivering services as effectively as we needed to. But we didn’t anticipate that we were going to be shut down for six, eight, nine months. Like everybody else, the pandemic took us by surprise.

Parents have been very anxious about what schooling is going to look like. I don’t think anybody wanted to repeat it in the form we left it. Everybody wanted something better. And we got working on what that might be. What we’re dealing with is constantly changing. Something that may have made sense for us on Monday doesn’t make sense to us on Wednesday because we learned something new on Tuesday.

There was all this political pushback. Just in the last several months, we’ve had 11 different and conflicting pieces of guidance that have come either from the University Interscholastic League or Texas Education Agency (TEA) or the Attorney General Ken Paxton or Governor Greg Abbott, and the county health authority as well. It creates an additional layer of complexity throughout the school boards. It’s been very, very difficult. Our school superintendent said that he’s never worked harder in his life.

We will be online for the first three weeks, per county rule. After that, we will begin phasing students back into the classroom. We’re going to start with the 25% of our population of students who were most disadvantaged by the online learning experience that we had at the end of last year. And then from there, we will attempt to bring in the rest of the student population that wants to come back, allowing teachers and administrators to kind of learn as they go.

We expect we’re going to be going backwards and forwards a lot — maybe until we get a vaccine.

We did two surveys over the summer to try to ascertain the interest in online and in-person learning per our parents. The first time, 73% of parents wanted their children to come back to school. This time, it was roughly 61%. I think that reflects the threat the virus poses — two months ago, we didn’t have the same viral threat that we do today. And TEA has said we have to accommodate any parent who wants to send their child back.

One of the biggest challenges we have right now is reassuring teachers that we can provide a safe space for them to work. In the first survey, roughly 60% of the teachers said they would like to come back into the classroom. We didn’t survey a second time in large part because of the TEA ruling that we had to accommodate all the other students in the classroom. A number of our teachers, particularly some of our more senior teachers, have retired because of their concerns about being able to teach safely. We have had quite a few of our teachers request medical waivers, and our substitute teaching pool has dramatically declined. We usually have a reserve of about 300 subs, but our pool has dropped to a little over 100. And we’re going into an environment where we’re expecting to have people sick and unable to work.

If you have a student in a classroom that tests positive, then that classroom closes and the student needs to quarantine for 14 days. The classroom then needs to be closed for five days for cleaning before it can reopen. We fully expect that we’re going to have that. And the students who were in that classroom go online for whatever period that classroom is closed. We expect we’re going to be going backwards and forwards a lot — maybe until we get a vaccine. We’re expecting a very unusual, very disruptive school year.

Social media has just been on fire with battling armies of parents. It’s just been awful. Some parents are more concerned about the virus than others, and some people will assign or hang politics on top of that concern. We’ve had a lot of that. We had competing Change.org petitions. One was demanding we reopen schools immediately — 100% of students back in the classrooms and that we require teachers to come to work, just like everybody is an essential worker. It wasn’t a particularly empathetic petition. People were going back and forth all over Facebook and Nextdoor. Hundreds of posts. Some of it was awful, name-calling and all that. I was trying to keep up with it, not that I enjoy reading all that stuff, but just in an effort to stay abreast of what was going on. There’s so much intensity. It’s kind of depressing.

Social media has just been on fire with battling armies of parents. It’s just been awful.

We had been under a tremendous amount of pressure from both of those sides: The more cautious parents were encouraging us to stay closed and the less cautious parents were encouraging us to open up. Remember though, parents who are concerned can opt out; they can choose online learning. We’re not dragging children into the school against the parents’ will. What we attempted to do was thread the needle and provide for an orderly reintroduction of students. We don’t have a choice but to reintroduce students if we want funding.

Covid is expensive, and our core costs are still the same. Eighty-five percent of our budget is personnel and benefits. And we haven’t let anybody go yet. We’re losing a lot of revenue because we’re not able to rent out our fields to sports teams, we’ve got a performing arts center that people regularly use, and that’s gone away. TEA hasn’t provided us with any more money. And in fact, the CARES money that the feds appropriated and sent to Texas, TEA withheld that and did not pass it along to school districts.

The social justice discussion has been every bit as volatile as the back-to-school discussion. It erupted with the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed. There are several social media accounts that are just brutally documenting the excesses and abuses of former students. And that has prompted a real reckoning in our community. Our community is not very diverse, so we reflect our community. But that means the school board is all white. And one of the challenges that we’re attempting to confront right now is a social justice initiative. A lot of the opportunities and privileges that the folks in our community have enjoyed are being challenged by our students and by our alumni. So we’re trying to develop a broader dialogue.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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