District Addresses Latest Health and Safety Protocols in Town Hall

District+officials+held+a+virtual+town+hall+on+Tuesday%2C+Jan.+19+covering+the+most+recent+developments+on+health+and+safety+protocols+to+be+implemented+on+campuses.+Panelists+led+a+brief+presentation+and+responded+to+community+questions.+Photo+courtesy+of+RRISD.+

Photo By RRISD

District officials held a virtual town hall on Tuesday, Jan. 19 covering the most recent developments on health and safety protocols to be implemented on campuses. Panelists led a brief presentation and responded to community questions. Photo courtesy of RRISD.

By Catharine Li, Arts & Entertainment Editor

 

RRISD officials hosted a virtual town hall on Tuesday, Jan. 19 addressing the latest developments in ongoing COVID-19 health and safety procedural protocols. In the first installment in the second series of meetings open to public attendance, experts stressed an increased focus on virus mitigation strategies implemented for in-person instruction, including daily health screenings, social distancing, frequent hand-washing, student and staff mask protocols, and the limitation of visitors to essential purposes. 

Timely and accurate communication continues to remain the highest priority for the district, and as part of this effort, officials increased the frequency of updates on the district-wide COVID-19 statistics dashboard from weekly to daily. Following a brief presentation outlining the Reimagining Education plan, the floor was opened for community questions. Discussion surrounding plans for vaccination was a focus in the meeting. Currently, the district looks to the state health department for guidance on imposing a vaccination requirement. After a successful effort was made over winter break to vaccinate employees age 65 or older in addition to school nurses, they hope to work with partners and third-party vendors to increase access to vaccines as Texas slowly moves through the distribution process.  

“As we’re trying as a nation to vaccinate millions of people, we’re just waiting to see how that will roll out, especially what time of year that would come out depending on when the pediatric doses become available,” Director of Health Services Brandy Hafner said. “Most vaccines are not administered on school property because we would have to assure that we would be able to provide all the safety that [is] necessary if [a] kid had a reaction to a vaccine on campus.” 

Additionally, Ms. Hafner addressed interest in the possibility of increasing safety measures in light of a recent spike in cases, pointing to a trend seen around the Thanksgiving and winter holidays, stating that such significant numbers came as a result of community activity outside of school walls. 

“I believe we will continue to have a rise in cases until we have a more significant buy-in from our community,” Ms. Hafner said. “While we have some measure of control to keep people apart when we’re in school, it’s really disheartening to see people totally disregard those measures when they walk out of the school. We have the power to keep ourselves safer, but it will take a lot of cooperation and a lot of work together.” 

The University Interscholastic League (UIL), being the governing body behind extracurricular athletic and arts programs, is committed to ensuring that safety measures are still intact for activities in a group setting. Directing their attention to spectators’ experiences at events, increased interest in restoring the engagement aspect of sports games has led to an increase in the maximum attendance capacity, now 50%.  

“The virtual option also propagates a different environment on our campuses,” Acting Superintendent Dr. Daniel Presley said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re providing the best opportunity for all of our students. This is also the social-emotional piece that we talk about all the time. Last spring when the pandemic hit, we had kind of a lost year for a lot of kids in spring sports, so it’s trying to maintain that piece that a lot of kids connect to [in] school.” 

The district plans to continue providing a virtual learning option for the remainder of the school year. With many students coming to campus to participate in select “travel” electives such as athletics and fine arts, smoothly facilitating testing in the spring is an additional topic of development amongst administrators, who are working to accommodate greater numbers of students for on-site testing. 

“The role of principalship has changed drastically, and I think that daily responsibilities have really changed from what they were typically [in] a daily basis; recalibrating the needs of their on-campus and virtual students,” Area Superintendent of the McNeil Learning Community John Yonker said. 

As the City of Austin stays in the Stage Five COVID-19 community risk level, questions arose over potentially transitioning to fully virtual instruction for the time being. Districts across the state are in tough positions as the Texas Education Agency (TEA) requires schools, by law, to provide in-person instruction for students who seek that option. 

“[Our health authorities] work very well with us within the boundaries of what they know we have to follow,” Ms. Hafner said. “They’re going to stay true to their science, that it would be best if we were at home until we are out of these advanced stages, but they are very aware of the realities. It’s something that we have to balance [and] are very much hoping TEA can take another look at as we move forward.” 

Straddling both Williamson and Travis county, district decision making amid ever-evolving public health conditions is dependent on remaining flexible. Maintaining an active relationship with federal and regional health agencies is critical. 

“We confer with both counties, report to both counties, [and] take recommendations from both counties, but again those are just recommendations for us,” Ms. Hafner said. “The school district has to decide what works best. Both counties definitely have our best interests at heart.”

As students and families continue to navigate pandemic schooling, two more town halls are scheduled to occur next week, with an overview on teaching and learning frameworks on Monday, Jan. 25, and a conversation on athletics and fine arts programs on Tuesday, Jan. 26. 

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