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School roundup: Austin ISD, Huston-Tillotson, Texas State and more start spring semester with new rules in age of omicron

Del Valle ISD is one of several Austin-area schools that will continue mask mandates this spring. (Del Valle ISD/Facebook)

Austin ISD alone saw 30% of its 1,200 tested students and staff test positive for COVID on Monday, prompting the district and schools across Central Texas to consider tightening restrictions amid the omicron COVID surge.


Omicron, the highly transmissible COVID variant responsible for the latest nationwide surge, has contributed to the highest COVID rate since the start of the pandemic with one in three COVID tests positive in Central Texas. Sitting at the Stage 5 threshold in Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, there has been a major increase in COVID hospitalizations, including in pediatric hospitalizations with 42 kids hospitalized locally as of Monday—a 281% increase from the week before.

Children still pose a far lower risk of severe complications than adults leading some Central Texas schools and universities to keep the spring semester near-normal. However, others have added new masking rules or switched back to temporary online learning.

Schooling during a pandemic has remained a hot-button issue with some reluctant to see another year with restrictions. Still others, including Round Rock ISD parent Brenda Barraza, think their districts aren't doing enough to protect kids, faculty and families.

"I just feel that the schools should give the parents the option to stay virtual," Barraza said. "With the new variant hitting children the hardest it’s just scary. And what about those with pre-existing health issues, or having them bring it home? My mom, for example, is vaccinated but is disabled and COVID would really hurt her."

Here's a roundup of which schools around Austin have made changes for the spring semester:

Austin ISD

Just as the district did last semester, Austin ISD announced that masks would be required on all district campuses in the spring semester. But with one-third of 1,200 tested students and faculty testing positive on Monday, the district sent out an email Monday with a few more recommendations—including encouraging students to wear an N95 mask or double mask if possible.

The district has also announced 11 testing sites, including a mobile van, that began operation on Jan. 3. In response to the CDC's new guidance, the district said that students can come back to school after five days of isolation as long as they are asymptomatic. If a student tests positive, the child's classmates will be notified and will have the option of staying in school and testing on the fifth day or staying home and testing five days later.

In addition to masking and isolation protocols, AISD said extra ventilation, sanitation and social distancing protocols are in place to help keep kids safe. AISD's spring semester begins Wednesday.

But some parents believe the new recommendations aren't enough—a group of over 50 parents have emailed the district asking for a delayed start, outdoor lunches and other new measures.

Round Rock ISD

Just two weeks after announcing that RRISD would make masking optional starting Jan. 19, the holiday surge forced school officials to reconsider the move.

A Dec. 30 email said that the district would reverse its announcement and continue to require masks indoors on school property as the district's semester begins Wednesday.

While many parents and administrators are focused on a scandal surrounding a Texas Education Agency investigation of district superintendent Dr. Hafedh Azaiez, some parents, including Barraza, are worried that mask requirements aren't enough to protect students.

Hays CISD

While the district does not require masking, Hays County district Hays CISD has begun installing air purifiers throughout its campuses.

In September, the district's board of trustees allocated $4.4 million to buy 1,800 air purification units after the summer Delta variant surge.

The district prioritized Tobias Elementary and Dahlstrom Middle School, which will both have purifiers installed by the first day of the semester on Wednesday. Tobias Elementary closed in September after more than 10% of its campus tested positive for COVID, while Dahlstrom also nearly closed amid a surge.

Leander ISD

While Leander ISD does not have masking requirements in place, the district announced Friday that it would strongly recommend double masking when inside school buildings and getting students above age five vaccinated and boosted when possible.

Contrary to the CDC's new guidelines, Leander said it would continue to require 10 days of isolation for COVID-positive students but said they had contacted the Texas Education Agency for clarity and anticipate shifting to five-day isolation in coming weeks.

The University of Texas

A few days after other area universities announced they would start the spring semester with a brief period of online-only instruction, the University of Texas said it would do the same.

The school announced that it would ask faculty to teach remotely from the semester's start date Jan. 18-28, with instructors allowed to teach in person during that time frame if they also provide online learning.

UT also asked students to test for COVID within three days of returning to campus.

Texas State University

On Monday, San Marcos' Texas State University became the first Austin-area university to switch to temporary online learning. In an email sent out to students, President Denise Trauth said the school would have online-only instruction from the start of the semester on Jan. 18 through Jan. 31.

Most students were disappointed to have yet another portion of their education conducted online, but students like senior theater undergrad Sarah Morton told Austonia they understand why their school made the switch,

"Being a student of the arts and being in classes that feed off of peer interaction, it’s incredibly challenging to be entering my last year of college reverting back to remote learning for the first two weeks, especially after having a great experience being in person last semester," Morton said. "However, because people in our community aren’t taking steps toward safety like masking up and getting vaccinated, I understand completely why it's necessary for the safety of everyone. While I am not the happiest to be back online, I’m glad we're all just being safe."

All campuses and offices will remain open for in-person or online services, including the school's transportation, Alkek Library and LBJ Student Center, and resident move-in will stay on time.

But students who live on-campus will need proof of a negative test before move-in, and all university-sponsored events will be moved online or postponed until after the online period.

Huston-Tillotson University

Following Texas State's announcement, Austin private HBCU Huston-Tillotson University announced Monday that it will begin the semester with two weeks of online instruction. University President and CEO Colette Pierce Burnett told students and faculty that all classes will begin online on Monday, Jan. 10 and will stay remote until Monday, Jan. 24.

Residence halls will continue to have move-ins as scheduled, and Burnette encouraged students to wear masks on-campus, report positive COVID test results and symptoms to the school's app, and use on-campus testing and vaccination sites available throughout the semester.

Schools not making changes

Mask mandates remain in place for Del Valle and Manor ISD, while Eanes ISD continues to strongly encourage masking without mask requirements.

Colleges including Austin Community College and St. Edward's University have not changed their policies ahead of the spring semester, with the University of Texas telling Statesman reporter Megan Menchaca that they "do not have any updates to share at this time." UT's positivity rate for students, staff and faculty reached nearly 10% Monday, its highest ever reported.

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