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A top local health official is backing a study that recommends school districts prioritize reopening for K-5 and special education programs, attended by students who the survey said would be most disadvantaged by online education.


Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott suggested the staged reopening might be best during a Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, citing the 100-page consensus study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

"[The Academies] really call for districts to weigh the risks of health against the educational risks of providing no educational instruction," Dr. Escott said, adding that many students rely on school for other services than education.

Students in kindergarten through third grade are especially in need of in-person education, per the study, because they are developing reading skills, which determine the rest of their educational careers. Students with special needs, similarly, may rely on social support and technological resources in schools that may not be available at home.

Dr. Escott said Austin school districts should learn from the state's previous reopening attempt, which opened businesses too quickly, leading to increased transmission of COVID-19 and a second round of closures. By taking a more measured approach, schools may be able to prevent future shutdown, which would further disrupt student learning.

"We can't implement strategy after the schools are reopened," he told commissioners. "Now's the time to ensure that these measures are in place so that we can open and stay open."

Last week, Dr. Escott ordered all public and private schools in Austin and Travis County not to reopen for on-campus, face-to-face instruction until after Sept. 7. The Texas Education Agency also changed its guidelines for the fall semester and will allow schools to have online-only instruction for the first eight weeks of the school year, which would be until Oct. 13 for Austin ISD.

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