Overworked amid the COVID pandemic, Austin teachers could lose vital lesson planning time

·6 min read

Middle school and high school teachers in the Austin school district are concerned district leaders could eliminate one of the two planning periods that are built into their schedules, and increase their workload.

District leaders have acknowledged conversations about possible daily schedule changes to cope with financial constraints and to pay for proposed pay increases for teachers and hourly employees, but they have not yet shared details.

"We are considering changes to our daily schedules and are engaging with our principals right now on this matter," Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde said in a statement provided by the district this week.

Read more: Lago Vista closing two schools Tuesday and Wednesday due to rising COVID-19 cases

Teachers warn that adding one more class period to their teaching schedule would leave them with less time to complete other work requirements, such as grading, outreach to families, lesson planning, evaluating student needs and ensuring accommodations for special education students. They also say this could lead to more burnout and resignations among teachers already fatigued by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"All those extra things teachers do throughout the day, in addition to planning and grading, that help to ensure that the students are having the best experience possible with their education, that's going to take it away from us," David DeLeon, an English language arts teacher at Burnet Middle School, told the American-Statesman.

"And we're going to have to try to make up that somehow, which is going to amount to more work after school or on the weekends, which teachers are already doing a lot of," he added.

Lendell Hawley teaches engineering at Eastside Early College High School on Wednesday. Austin secondary teachers often use two of the eight class periods a day for planning, grading, reaching out to families and evaluating student needs, among other things.
Lendell Hawley teaches engineering at Eastside Early College High School on Wednesday. Austin secondary teachers often use two of the eight class periods a day for planning, grading, reaching out to families and evaluating student needs, among other things.

Under Texas law, classroom teachers must receive at least 450 minutes within each two-week period for "instructional preparation, including parent-teacher conferences, evaluating students’ work, and planning."

That means classroom teachers should receive at least 45 minutes of planning time every day and "may not be required to participate in any other activity" during that time, according to the law.

In the Austin school district, secondary schools schedule students for eight class periods, either all in a day or on an alternating block schedule, and teachers typically teach during six of those eight class periods, said Ken Zarifis, president of district employee union Education Austin, who shared the district's plans.

The district long has granted secondary school teachers another planning period in addition to the state-required time because of the demands and greater flexibility in middle and high school schedules, Zarifis said. During this second planning period, district leaders typically task teachers with attending team meetings to evaluate student performance and needs, he said.

Jessica Cherry teaches anatomy at Eastside Early College High School in East Austin on Wednesday. Teachers are concerned about the possibility of teaching seven of eight class periods, instead of six of eight, as part of an Austin school district plan to cope with diminished state funding.
Jessica Cherry teaches anatomy at Eastside Early College High School in East Austin on Wednesday. Teachers are concerned about the possibility of teaching seven of eight class periods, instead of six of eight, as part of an Austin school district plan to cope with diminished state funding.

Amid budget constraints and calls from elementary school teachers for more planning time, district leaders previously had floated a plan to eliminate the block schedule and one of the eight class periods in secondary schools.

The proposal was unpopular among students, parents and teachers, who feared it could also mean cuts to student electives and teaching jobs. District leaders put the plan on hold in December, but they now are considering requiring secondary school teachers to take on one more class period, according to Education Austin officials.

Related: Hutto ISD closing all schools Tuesday and Wednesday due to staff out with COVID-19

Megan Barrett, a special education teacher at Dobie Middle School in Northeast Austin, said she can't imagine keeping up with her work implementing special education student accommodations and individualized education programs under the proposed teaching schedule.

"We are not going to be able to give them the accommodations they need," she said. "We just won't have the time."

Other funding options?

Zarifis estimates a teaching schedule with one fewer planning period would increase teachers' workload by about 20% and fears it could lead to job cuts, even though district leaders have said they are focusing on staff reductions through attrition and cuts to central office staff.

He said the move also could prevent the school district from asking teachers to volunteer to substitute teach during the additional planning period, as many school districts are doing now because of staff shortages amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

Instead, Education Austin representatives and teachers are asking district leaders to address budget constraints through other avenues, such as relying on federal COVID-19 relief funds or district reserves, and selling district real estate.

Ross Smith teaches graphic design Wednesday at Eastside Early College High School. Teachers said the loss of a planning period could lead to burnout amid the stress and added workload of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ross Smith teaches graphic design Wednesday at Eastside Early College High School. Teachers said the loss of a planning period could lead to burnout amid the stress and added workload of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The last place the district should go to balance its budget is the classroom," Zarifis said at a Tuesday news conference.

Elizalde told school board members last week that the district already has accounted for the relief funds and still faces a $62 million shortfall due to diminished state funding tied to lower enrollment and attendance. District leaders said selling district properties only would produce one-time revenue and limit future opportunities to generate revenue.

District officials also have said they cannot dip further into the district's reserves because school board policy requires the district to maintain reserves at 20% of the district's operating expenses to keep a good bond rating and afford construction projects.

Zarifis said the school board could vote to lower that threshold to 15%, at least temporarily.

Budget concerns

Austin school board President Geronimo Rodriguez said in a statement that "all ideas are welcome" and the board's policy on reserves "is a best practice which allows us to respond to emergency cash flow needs as recently shown during the pandemic and Winter Storm Uri."

Read more: Westlake schools raise daily pay rates to attract more substitutes during shortage

Rodriguez added that strong reserves allow the district to maintain a good bond rating that saves the district "millions in interest costs" and to pay employees year-round without having to borrow money.

"There are pros and cons, mostly cons, to the seven of eight (class periods) in terms of its impact on campuses, and there are only cons to not creating a balanced budget," Elizalde told the school board last week.

Even if the schedule changes make teacher pay increases possible, DeLeon said he would not consider it a raise.

"What it really boils down to is a pay cut because teachers will be working more throughout the day," he said.

Alexander Johnson teaches college preparation mathematics at Eastside Early College High School on Wednesday. Austin district secondary teachers aren't alone when it comes to teaching six of eight periods a day. Many teachers in surrounding districts also receive two planning periods per day.
Alexander Johnson teaches college preparation mathematics at Eastside Early College High School on Wednesday. Austin district secondary teachers aren't alone when it comes to teaching six of eight periods a day. Many teachers in surrounding districts also receive two planning periods per day.

Officials from several school districts contacted by the Statesman said secondary teachers typically are given two class periods off from teaching for planning time, including in the Round Rock and Dallas districts. In the Eanes district, middle school and high school teachers for core academic classes get two class periods off, as do most high school teachers and middle school teachers for core classes in the Lake Travis district and some math teachers in the Hays district.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin ISD could end planning period for middle, high school teachers

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting