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Austin's top doctor says returning to school in-person is safe with COVID-19 precautions

"I was confident in the school district's plan to, not only protect the students, but to protect the teachers."

AUSTIN, Texas — As long as coronavirus safety precautions are followed, Austin Public Health's Dr. Mark Escott said he believes it's OK to go back to school in-person. Austin ISD kids whose parents chose for them to learn in-person will head back to class on Monday.

"First and foremost, we care about all of our employees," said AISD Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde. "I care about all of our employees. Teachers are the heart of our work and we also depend on support staff like counselors and custodians and our food service and our bus drivers and our maintenance employees, plumbers, electricians, groundskeepers, principals, assistant principals. The list goes on. All of our employees surely have concerns during this pandemic."

Hundreds of employees with Austin ISD's teacher union, Education Austin, don't want to return to school in-person, and the union held a rally on Saturday to get attention from the school district.

"The reality is TEA does not provide for any option that allows 100% virtual instruction," said Elizalde in response to employee concerns. "That is not available to us. In addition, parents will have a choice. We will continue to offer virtual instruction to any parent who so desires. This pandemic is very difficult for everyone."

"Masking and the distancing, the hand hygiene, the hand sanitizer, the hand washing and the constant reinforcement for the students is really doing a great job at limiting the spread within the school system," said Escott.

Escott said there's no evidence showing kids passing each other in a hallway leads to transmission of COVID-19 and he said it'll be imperative to screen kids before they leave the house.

"I'm married to an educator. My children are both doing in-person education. I was confident in the school district's plan to, not only protect the students, but to protect the teachers, and I have the same confidence in the plan for AISD," said Escott.

Education Austin said in a statement it still disagrees with the reopening of AISD campuses.

"Austin ISD is too concerned about funding and not enough about the lives of students, teachers and their families," it said. 

Dr. Elizalde said the school district created a teacher group of 40 people to make sure their voices are heard. 

"I cannot praise our teachers enough for the virtual instruction improvements that have occurred. I have heard from many of our parents, our constituents, about the quality and the length of time that our teachers are spending, virtually working with our students," said Elizalde. "A teacher group that will provide us feedback and ongoing advice and recommendations – I did get an opportunity to talk with one teacher at length last week and I really heard the idea of being participatory in this process. So while I do not know what amount of involvement teachers had, as this plan was designed prior to my arrival, I do think that it is important for me to practice people's support what they helped to create."

Escott said he and former AISD superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz were in constant communication before he left the district. Now, he is in constant communication with Elizalde. 

"What are we going to do? How are we going to open? This really has been a collaborative effort with Austin Public Health and school districts around Travis County," said Escott. "Back in May, when we first started having these discussions, we talked about the need to have flexibility in the system because there are going to be people – teachers, staff, students and their families – that have different levels of risk and different levels of risk tolerance."

As far as testing goes, Escott said he's advising school districts save testing for students who need it the most. He said it is also important school districts are constantly reevaluating the plans in place when new data comes into play. 

"Things may change. The recommendations may change, and that's going to be based upon the science and the facts that we have at the time," said Escott.

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