ROUND ROCK, Texas — Students in schools across Round Rock ISD staged a walkout on Thursday to protest what they say is a lack of COVID-19 safety protocols.
A petition calling for changes started nine days ago and has garnered more than 1,700 student signatures and more than 400 parent and faculty signatures as of Thursday morning.
“Basically, with the rising COVID-19 cases and how severe the problem was then getting in all of our schools, we felt that we really had a need to advocate for ourselves and voice our concerns to the district,” said Asmita Lehther, a senior at Round Rock High School who is helping lead the effort.
The students say their requests have not been met and they don’t feel like they have received a meaningful response from the district. That's why they walked out of class and headed home for the day on Thursday.
The walkout was at 10 a.m. at some schools and 10:30 a.m. at others. Two of the high schools had protest spots for students who are not able to find a way home. KVUE's Pamela Comme confirmed that students with Round Rock High and Cedar Ridge High walked out Thursday. However, a protest organizer with Cedar Ridge told KVUE the protest was broken up by an administrator, and some people were sent back to class.
Students and staff who want to support the cause but do not want to walk out were advised to wear red to school. The students say they will be speaking at the school board meeting on Thursday night about their concerns, following the walkout earlier in the day.
Their main requests are that there should be a virtual option for students unless the district can enforce its mask mandate and that the district should provide high-quality masks, give students outdoor eating options even when it rains, have more testing options and start conducting contact tracing again – something the students say is not happening at the middle or high school levels.
When KVUE looked at RRISD's website, we found there were only contact tracing efforts listed for elementary schools.
“You know, I have a class of 30, maybe 10 people will be out. We don't really get to make those choices where it's like, ‘Oh, maybe there's something that happened.’ No, we assume that they have COVID. And more often than not, it's true,” Lehther said. “But we've stopped. We stopped a contact tracing. So, we have no way of knowing if the person that was sitting next to us that's gone today has COVID.”
The State of Texas will only fund virtual learning if no more than 10% of the school is taking part. Students think the district should take advantage of even that small percentage who could learn virtually.
So far this week, as of Thursday morning, the district's COVID-19 dashboard shows that RRISD has already had nearly 1,900 COVID-19 cases in the district. The week prior, the district had more than 2,200 cases among students and staff.
On Monday, Jan. 10, RRISD had 7,920 student absences, approximately 16.5% of its student population. The district also had 547 teachers, librarians and nurses absent, which is approximately 16% of that employee population.
Not only is RRISD struggling to staff teachers right now, but the district is also struggling to get enough substitutes. On Friday, Jan. 14, there were 800 staff absences. The total number of absent positions filled with substitutes that day was 251, or about 35% of the total absences.
“We're being put into like, lecture halls with more than one class inside. We're not getting adequate learning and now more teachers are having to sub and they have to take it out of their planning periods. And then there are some teachers that haven't had a break since we got back from winter break,” Lehther said.
According to the law in Texas, State funding is currently mandated by school attendance. Unlike earlier in the pandemic, virtual learning is no longer fully supported in order to receive funding. That is part of the reason the students think the walkout will be effective.
“The whole idea is that if you're not respecting our personhood, if you're not respecting our safety, then you won't receive the funding that you would have gotten from us being in school,” Lehther said.
KVUE reached out to RRISD about both the walkout and the specific COVID-19 concerns raised by students. We received the following statement:
“Our campus principals are providing a safe space for students to gather if they choose to walk out. Students who leave class will receive an unexcused absence but no other consequences. Regarding their concerns - we share them. Every district in the area is facing similar challenges as Omicron surges. We continue to have a mask requirement in place, provide free testing at a district site (and are working on expanding testing opportunities), have upgraded air filtration throughout the district, and are not allowing visitors on campus. We will close campuses if there are so many staff members out that we are unable to safely operate the campus. We do close individual classes and switch to remote learning temporarily (as allowed by TEA) when there are a significant amount of epi-linked cases in one class. However, we have to balance closure decisions with the importance of keeping schools open for a variety of reasons, including the important resources campuses provide daily that many families depend on.”
You can learn more about the students' concerns on the Twitter page they created.
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