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Austin ISD will strongly encourage masking when the school year starts on Aug. 17, but the district is prohibited from mandating it. (Bob Daemmrich)

With Austin-Travis County in Stage 4 and local COVID case counts rising, parents of young children are weighing the question: Is it safe to send kids back to the classroom?


While children under 12 remain ineligible for the COVID vaccine, public school districts are unable to mandate masks as a result of an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May. They also lack funding for virtual learning options after state lawmakers failed to pass such legislation during the regular session.

As last year's public school pandemic closures led to an enrollment bump at area private schools as well as the explosion of learning pods—teachers paired with family groups looking for help with virtual learning—some families are again considering homeschooling their elementary school-age kids or enrolling them in an alternative online program or private school.

Mediocre options

Melissa Rojas Williams, a mother of four kids under 7 who lives in the Mueller neighborhood, talks about these options with her husband daily. If Austin ISD doesn't offer virtual learning options by the first day of school on Aug. 17, the couple is considering homeschooling or joining a learning pod. "You want your kids to be social… but the reality of COVID—it's in Stage 4—and also our kids, because of their ages, are unvaccinated," she told Austonia. "It's a harsh reality."

Rojas Williams is weighing priorities as she decides how to proceed. Her youngest child is 2 years old, and she worries that he lacks basic immunity after growing up almost entirely in quarantine. But she wants her older children to experience in-person schooling and knows that another year of virtual learning or homeschooling would come at a cost to her and her husband's careers. She's already extended her graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin an extra year as a result of the pandemic.

"The worst part is this year is still better than the last because we seem to know a little more about what works," she said.

The privilege to choose

Similarly, Pete Gilcrease, a father of two—ages 9 and 5—in Hyde Park, is considering homeschooling or an alternative online program if AISD does not offer a virtual learning option. Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told the Austin American-Statesman editorial board last week that the district is considering offering limited virtual learning; more information is due to be released by next Monday, according to the district.

Gilcrease worries that if his kids do attend school in person they could contract a case of COVID and suffer long-term effects. So until they are eligible to get vaccinated, he and his partner will choose to work from home to facilitate online learning. But he is frustrated with state and federal policies that force some parents to choose between their income and their children's health. "Most people don't have a choice," he said.

Scrambling for an alternative

Carrie Collier-Brown, a lawyer, is also frustrated. She and her husband recently moved their family to West Austin, where her kids—an 11-year-old rising sixth grader and 5-year-old twins—would attend Eanes ISD this fall. But now she is considering moving her twins to a private school or joining a learning pod because they are too young to be expected to wear masks all day without enforcement.

Such a switch would involve scrambling to enroll the twins in a new program at the last minute and possibly committing to another year of virtual schooling, which would affect Collier-Brown and her husband's work lives. "It was nothing that we ever wanted to repeat," she said of the last school year.

Like many parents, Collier-Brown understands that school districts are in a bind. But she is fed up with state officials, whose policies, she says, don't seem to acknowledge the fact that young children cannot get vaccinated, and adults who opt not to. "Their selfish choices are directly impinging on my family's freedom," Collier-Brown said. "I think it's their turn to stay home."

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