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Austin ISD superintendent addresses school year successes, challenges and solutions

Dr. Stephanie Elizalde joins the AISD community during the coronavirus pandemic. She said she has high hopes for the rest of the school year.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin ISD's brand-new superintendent joins the school district as they deal with coronavirus precautions. It was the school district's first day of virtual school on Tuesday and it expects to phase students inside buildings on Oct. 6. 

KVUE's Mari Salazar spoke with Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde about how the first day went, the challenges they face and the solutions she anticipates.

To celebrate the first day of school, Elizalde went on a virtual and in-person tour of AISD campuses. The school district said she introduced herself to students and their teachers as they begin their new school year. 

Salazar: It wasn't only the students' first day of school, it was also your first day of school superintendent for AISD. Can you tell us how it went? Is it everything you expected?

Elizalde: It exceeded my expectations. The parents, students, staff, and the leadership team here in Austin ISD just made yesterday a very successful day. There's always room for improvement, but I also think we have to take moments and celebrate our successes. Truthfully, given the fact that we had just a couple of technology glitches that were out of our control, we were able to get them corrected quickly. All in all, it was a very successful day.

I know you're coming into the school district during this very weird time in education. The education system has been thrown into a loop, but what are some of the challenges that you're expecting as the school year starts and continues throughout the rest of 2020?

I think the first challenge is going to be ensuring that we have safe, healthy, secure environments. As staff is returning, we need to ensure that we are communicating as cases may be identified; that we're doing our contact tracing. I think that's going to be one of the first areas that's a challenge because you have to keep up with that. 

I think the second challenge is going to be membership and enrollment. We have seen younger-aged children, Pre-K and kinder, whose parents may be thinking the whole technology thing, which we all know isn't the best learning for our most youngest students although our teachers have made it super engaging, may decide not to enroll their children. I want to encourage them to go ahead and enroll and see how it goes for the first few weeks before they make a decision to wait another year because we don't want students to not have access to equitable instruction. 

Lastly, I think because of enrollment and because of the pandemic in general, we have no way of knowing what kind of economic impact this is going to have on the state of Texas, on individuals, and therefore the following by any of this coming legislative session is going to be critical to see how schools are going to be able to be funded and maintained, knowing that economically, the state is going to be taking a big hit.

Can you explain a little bit how AISD will monitor contact tracing? I know it's a very difficult thing to do. It's not easy.

Yes, it is very difficult, But we have to do it and we have to do it with precision so that we avoid having to shut down an entire school. Contact tracing is critical. We have one point person. Our health director, Alexandra Copeland, who's taking the lead on that. So once a case is identified, then she actually gets with that school or facility and interviews to find out who was in contact and then defining close contact as the health department has given us guidance on. She then determines whether additional folks need to be quarantined for 14 days or if no one else needs to be quarantined. And then, beyond that, depending on exactly what the exposure was, do we need to shut down a part of the building? Do we need to shut down the whole building? 

We want to minimize the number of students that are exposed to other students. Now, that's much easier to do at an elementary school level than it is at a secondary level, where students do have different courses that are required for graduation purposes. Masking is very important. Of course, it's important across the board, but the fewer individuals that you come in contact with, the less exposure should a case arise. There's a lot of notification and a lot of communication that will go on, but the most important thing is when our students do return, our schedules will be to minimize the number of students, additional students that they will be exposed to.

What message do you have for parents who are on the fence about sending their kids back to school or keeping them home? I know it's a hard decision keeping them home or even sending them to school. So what message you have for parents for this school year?

Wherever possible, I want to empower parents to make those choices and we also want to have the safest, healthiest locations possible. So, we have been and will continue to have our screening questions. I'm required, like everyone else, to answer those screening questions. Every single morning. My temperature is taken as I enter the building and I have to wear a mask at all times. And so, I think I want our parents to know that we are going to follow those recommendations.

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