A divided district: groups emerge online to debate how and and when Eanes’ staff and students should return to in-person school


In August, as the community faced difficult decisions about how to return safely to school in the fall semester, Facebook pages were formed, bringing together individuals who agreed on what the transition to in-person school should look like. Although the ultimate goal for all groups is to return to the campus, the groups support different paths to that goal, which has resulted in divisiveness in the community.

Ultimately, the Eanes School Board, made up of seven Eanes ISD Board of Trustees, and the superintendent make the decisions regarding phasing into in-person school. On Sept. 8, 25% of the district’s students with the highest need returned to the classroom. Then Sept. 21, the board allowed the rest of the Eanes students who selected in-person school in an initial survey, which was up to 52% of students. While the community is looking to the board and administrators for answers, they have to abide by the state guidelines from the Texas Education Agency.

“Every family’s circumstances are different, and their opinions on how to handle this situation vary greatly. The fact is, it is impossible to find a solution that satisfies everyone completely.”

“When the TEA states that a school district must operate in a certain way in order to receive funding, we are forced to comply,” board president Jennifer Champagne said.  “We have also followed health and safety guidelines from the CDC [Center of Disease Control] and Travis County Health to minimize exposure to the virus as much as possible.”

The school board strives to listen to the state and health professionals while also responding to the feedback from the community’s students, parents and staff. According to Champagne, this is easier said than done.  

“None of us have ever faced these types of choices or challenges before,” Champagne said. “Every family’s circumstances are different, and their opinions on how to handle this situation vary greatly. The fact is, it is impossible to find a solution that satisfies everyone completely.”  

Still, however, the board encourages comments from everyone so they can provide the best education possible during this pandemic. Junior Jordan Craig was among the first 25% back on campus Sept. 8, and she feels as though the transition was vital for her education. Although she hasn’t engaged with any of the groups on Facebook, her experience with online school reflects the situation many students are in. 

“Last year during online school I was really struggling to find motivation to get school work done,” Jordan said. “It’s been really nice to be able to actually form a connection with my teachers and has definitely helped my grades improve a lot. For the first time in my life, I’m actually getting all A’s.”

Eanes Kids First was the first Facebook group to form Aug. 16 to discuss the struggles with online learning and communicate the need for in-person schooling to the administration board. EKF consists of 1,200 parents and other community members, many of whom felt students need to be physically back in school as soon as possible. Updates about the administrations’ decisions, board elections and links to recommended articles  are shared on the page’s feed. 

“I started it because I was trying to get information about in-school learning, and I was getting a lot of nasty comments on Facebook,” said the creator of EKF and Eanes mom Jennifer Stevens. “I got pretty frustrated with it and thought, ‘Well surely I’m not the only person that feels this way’ and created Eanes Kids First.” 

Stevens and EKF members organized a rally Aug. 25 by the Eanes Administration building. Several hundred parents and their kids gathered to support in-school learning, and speakers shared their personal reasons for needing to be back on campus.

So far, EKF has raised about $10,000 dollars, which helped fund the rally and purchase networking supplies such as bumper stickers and signs. During the rally, students who felt that the return to school should be safely regulated began to counter-protest. Junior Aric Shah, a yearbook photographer, documented this event. 

“Seeing so many people who felt so strongly about this issue was both surprising and caused me to feel at least a little moved and understanding towards their perspective,” Aric said. 

The students who counter-protested were less than a dozen high school girls who didn’t know about the rally beforehand, but once they heard, headed over to the opposite side of the road with signs and chants of their own. Both sides thought the others’ words were disrespectful, and a verbal dispute between the rally attendees and the high school counter-protesters ensued.

“One thing that surprised me was the counter-protesters,” Aric said. “Many kids from the protest were laughing, making fun of, and taking pictures of the counter-protesters. After the rally ended, a group of protesting moms started yelling and cursing at these students as they walked back to their cars.”

Though reports about the confrontation between protesters and counter-protesters vary, the conflict contributed to the creation of Eanes Community First. ECF consists of 501 students, staff and parents who wish to stay home or safely phase into in-person school per the district’s plan. It is the only Facebook group that was created by students. 

“We hope that our page can be used as a place for students seeking support of their opinion or needing support during this challenging time,” said an ECF supporter who wishes to remain anonymous. “We should also spend effort supporting our teachers and staff.”

One of their main messages is that it is unfair for teachers to have to go back when students get the choice. Teachers with a doctor-signed medical exemption were initially able to continue teaching remotely on Sept. 8, but once the limited numbers of students returned to in-person learning, district officials made the decision that even those staff members would need to return in order to properly supervise students. Staff members are working with district officials to set up additional accommodations on a case-by-case basis.  ECF members dislike the pressure teachers are facing and believe that students have the power to help keep them a little more safe by keeping in-person numbers lower and opting to continue remotely. 

“We are hoping that people will really consider whether or not they should personally go back to in-person schooling,” said an ECF supporter. “It’s just that we all need to be extra careful to keep others in mind more often and put our own comfort second.”

Not only has this page helped students advocate for their concerns, but it has also fostered an opportunity for them to hear how the community has struggled with the pandemic and online school. 

“We’ve spoken with a variety of people through DMs, comments and replies to stories,” said an ECF supporter.“We’ve actually learned a lot from this experience, as tons of people have shared their own personal experiences when it comes to COVID and school.” 

Another group, EanesSTRONG, was formed Aug. 22 in support of teachers and staff. Made up of parents and community members, EanesSTRONG now has 1,500 members. These parents believe that the pressure on teachers, administrators and the school board are facing from parents is only worsening an already difficult situation. They support district administration and school board members in their planned reintroduction of students to in-person learning.

“Bullying against teachers and saying that ‘they don’t want to come back to work’ or ‘just show up for work and do your job’ [is making it harder for them to teach],” Eanes mom and co-founder of EanesSTRONG Kim Allen said. 

After seeing this on their feeds, Allen and seven other Eanes parents created the Facebook group.

“It started as a group of parents who wanted people to know that while we may not be yelling the loudest, we don’t agree with [the negative comments circulating about teachers, parents and students],” Allen said.  

Although EanesSTRONG was created by parents, the group is unique in that a portion of their posts are testimonies from teachers about the challenges they are facing. 

“We started an anonymous submission [on our Facebook group] where teachers can post, and we edit out anything specific so they can share their actual experience,” Allen said. 

Many who submit messages do so anonymously because they feel they might jeopardize their job, reputation or friendships by speaking publicly. Members from multiple groups shared instances of feeling attacked after posting opinions online.  

“Rather than spending our energy negating people that we don’t agree with, we want to be positive, encourage parents to be positive and appreciate teachers and staff,” Allen said. “Let’s rise above, let’s focus on what we can do.”

Each of these groups shares petitions, gofundme links, letters and QR codes in order to help communicate their message with their supporters, the administration and school board. In addition to dialogue, the members have focused energy on some positive efforts. Some of the content is cross posted on pages but sparks different responses. Recently, the groups have all supported fundraising for medical expenses  for a long-time and Eanes employee who is battling COVID-19, along with fundraising for plexiglass partitions for teacher desks. EKF also offered free breakfast or lunch for teachers in partnership with Texas Honey Ham Sept. 21. EanesSTRONG has promoted an EEF donation campaign, an Eanes for Equity donation page and administered two free drive-up COVID-19 testing opportunities: one at the WACC and one at Valley View Elementary.

Additionally, EanesSTRONG tries to educate the community that some potential strategies and plans posed by groups could have effects that are detrimental to the district. Online conversations have suggested ideas such as log outs, which have not actually occurred. 

“If people get really pissed and keep doing that, at some point, it’s going to affect the schools’ funding which could affect teacher pay raises next year,” Allen said. “I think that people are also threatening to not vote in November for the [2 Penny Swap] initiative.” 

While the decisions made by the Eanes administration have encountered pushback from EKF, there are also many who support their decisions.

“No one knows how to do this perfectly, but I tend to trust the school, administration and teachers that have been working on this since May,” Allen said. 

Similar to how it takes students and staff time to adapt to COVID, the school board has adjusted their lives to serve the community to the best of their ability. Many from ECF and EanesSTRONG feel that it is important to humanize the board members’ situation too. 

“The summer months are a time where the district normally has a break, however this year few people had breaks,” Champagne said. “The board met in July, and we typically take July off. We met every week during August as well as we prepared for the reopening of school.”

A common point in each groups’ arguments is that overall mental health is suffering due to virtual learning. According to Allen, the toll that this pandemic and remote learning has taken on the teacher’s mental health is an issue that keeps her up at night.  

“And if teachers are struggling, how is that going to impact the students?” Allen said. “We have to support our teacher’s [mental health] so they can support our kids.” Allen said. 

All groups have shown a level of support for the situation that teachers are in. 

“I can’t even imagine trying to teach when they have their own kids at home for a lot of them and [are] trying to take care of the students [too],” Stevens said. “It’s a nightmare.”

However, the EKF group states that the mental health of the students should not be ignored. 

When I hear people say, ‘Oh, they’re kids, they’re resilient, they’ll be fine,’ I think that diminishes the toll that this takes on the kids,” Stevens said. 

While most seem to agree that mental health is a critical component at the heart of the current pandemic and resulting restrictions, the ways in which to address the challenges vary.

“I see a lot of parents witnessing a decline in their kids’ mental health and thinking it can be fixed by going back to school,” said a WHS teacher who wishes to remain anonymous. “We are experiencing a global pandemic. Pushing students back into school isn’t going to magically remove all of that adversary.”

Initial challenges in the ever-changing reintroduction of students and teachers to in-person learning centered around enforcing masks, sanitizing procedures, exposure protocol and more. The logistics around staying safe and creating a sustainable plan while balancing both student populations are complex, especially when much of it is dependent on each individual’s behavior.

“How can I maintain high standards without the benefit of everyone being there in person?” Director of Fine Arts and Bands Kerry Taylor said. “How will others treat the health concerns and safety protocols that are necessary to mitigate the spread of this virus which is so much more deadly in an enclosed building?”

Despite the hurdles, EKF supporters urge for the full reopening of schools immediately. The group’s message was that in-person schooling is vital for students’ education. 

“The collaboration, connection, engagement and feeding off each other in a room is not going to happen over Zoom,” Stevens said. “It’s really important for the learning process.”

With the COVID-19 guidelines restricting teachers’ ability to instruct as they normally do, many of them have echoed the importance of patience and appreciation from parents and students as they troubleshoot.  

“What teachers need most right now are tools, support and time to work out new ideas and strategies,” Taylor said. 

The divisiveness caused by online debates about school reopening and related issues is not unique to the Westlake community, but it is one that is playing out across the country. 

“Our community has split into two opposed groups, and it seems to be a direct reflection of the polarization in our country right now,” said one WHS teacher, who requested to remain anonymous. “People have taken this as the green light to be hostile towards one another.“

No group is exempt from the uncivil discourse that erupts between people who disagree, but some groups choose to see it as an opportunity to help devise a holistic solution to the community’s problems regarding COVID-19. 

“Disagreements open up discussions, and as long as those discussions are respectful, they can lead to real change,” an ECF supporter, who wishes to remain anonymous, said. “This is only possible if we focus on bettering our community as opposed to tearing down those who disagree with us.”

Taylor, who has been the band director for 31 years, sees some similarities between the current division and community discussions about opening a second high school in 1998, which eventually resulted in the construction of the Ninth Grade Center. 

“During that time the vast majority of folks were willing to listen to opposing comments and diversity of thought,” Taylor said. “Currently, I feel there are more of us just interested in forcing the ‘other side’ to agree to one’s demands and expectations. Yes, they are passionate, but reason and compromise seem to be less of a goal.” 

Taylor noticed how, in that time in Eanes’ history, the staff discussed how they could help provide information on the impacts of opening a second high school. 

“I do recall feeling that we all shared the responsibility to inform our community of all possible consequences of both a For and Against vote,” Taylor said. “This included staffing, academics, finances and extracurricular activities such as band and athletics.”

Although Taylor has the perspective that comes with seeing how Eanes has prevailed through uncertain times, for some, like Annabelle Borm, it is difficult for this community to know when things will return to “normal.”

“I think that everyone is stressed about things [that are] outside of their control, like politics or loved ones who may be at risk,” Annabelle said. “It’s not really a Westlake problem. Things won’t go ‘back to normal’ until the entire country calms down.”



If you would like to learn more about this topic, a few website links are below. 

Eanes Kids First


Click here to access the administration board meeting audio to learn more about this discussion. 

*Eanes Community First does not have a website as of now. If you want to check out each groups’ page, you can search them up by name on Facebook. You might have to request access to view.*