State of Texas: Changing plans for students and schools as the virus surges

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – The toll from COVID-19 reached new crisis levels in parts of Texas in the past week. The number of new cases keeps climbing in the state. Hospitalizations also hit new highs. The number of daily deaths linked to the virus topped 100 for three straight days, surging to 174 on Friday.

Cities around the state prepared for more cases. Austin planned to use part of the city’s convention center for a field hospital. San Antonio brought in refrigerated truck trailers to hold bodies in case morgues in the city fill up. Other cities are also requesting similar trucks.

In the Rio Grande Valley, patients in ambulances sometimes have to wait for hours before being moved into the emergency room. “The numbers are off the charts, literally,” Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino, Jr. said. “All of the hospitals are beyond capacity.”

Amid the disconcerting news about the virus, Texas schools are making plans to reopen in the coming weeks.

The Texas Education Agency released new guidance for school districts across the state, which includes allowing schools to extend the transition period of remote learning by an additional four weeks.

Originally, the agency allowed schools a three-week remote learning transition period. Now, that transition period has been extended to four weeks and can be extended by an additional four weeks by vote of local school boards.

“Our school systems I think are doing a phenomenal job responding in real-time to a rapidly evolving situation. We do know that they need flexibility to make sure that they can they can get all their procedures well-executed,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath.

Additionally, the guidance offers advice for districts to ensure the staff stays safe:

“This could include allowing those staff, including teachers, who may fulfill their work duties remotely to do so. It could include modification of schedules to ensure, where feasible, that staff members, including teachers, interact with smaller and/or more consistent cohorts of individuals to further mitigate risk. In addition, teachers and staff who are in high risk categories may be entitled to paid leave under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in addition to leave already accrued.”

TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY

This comes after weeks of teachers calling for an update to the safety protocols.

Morath said the agency has been communicating with teachers, superintendents and other staff across the state during the entire process.

“Our updated guidance provides more clarity so that school districts do in fact always work with all of their, their different staffers; returning teachers, or bus drivers, or cafeteria workers…as they’re crafting these plans. We, you know, we think it’s important that that that everyone is affected by this has a seat at the table,” Morath said.

Schools that offer remote learning must still offer in-person learning for any students without internet access at home.

To aid with access, Gov. Greg Abbott announced $200 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to the TEA for the purchase of eLearning devices and home internet solutions.

With that funding, the TEA will be able to purchase and distribute devices, hotspots, routers and more based on specific needs identified by local school districts.

“As school districts delay the start of in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year due to COVID-19, it is essential that we work to provide Texas students with the devices they need to connect and communicate online for classroom instruction,” Gov. Abbott said in a statement.

“We’re asking districts exactly what number of devices they need, whether we’re talking hotspots or you know, Chromebooks, these these kinds of things, for the families that that need them, and we’re actually going to just directly order it and ship it. So that allows us to really reduce total cost,” Morath explained.

Some parents have concerns over the extension of remote learning, inlcuding sinlge mother Nicole McNeely. She works full-time to support her three children, who are all at different grade levels.

“Okay, well, let me quit my job. Boom, here I go back on full state, you know, benefits. No, it’s not how I should be living…. this is money out of other people’s pockets. So it’s a never-ending circle. It just doesn’t end,” McNeely said.

Commissioner Morath said parents should communicate with their local districts.

“Parents generally have a right to put their kids in just about any school they wish. So I would tell you, encourage parents to talk to their local school system, tell them what their needs are. And try to find the option that works best for them,” Morath said.

The new guidelines also give school advice for what to do if a student or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19 once in-person learning resumes. That includes time for sanitation of the school, and criteria for the infected person to return:

  • At least three days (72 hours) have passed since recovery (resolution of fever
  • without the use of fever-reducing medications);
  • the individual has improvement in symptoms (cough, shortness of breath, etc.)
  • at least ten days have passed since symptoms first appeared

TEA also recommends a supervised 20 seconds of hand-washing twice a day, along with after using the restroom and before meals.

The spike in COVID-19 cases is also bringing changes for colleges and universities in Texas. Some Central Texas universities that were planning for all in-person courses in the fall are now changing course due to the spike and an order by the Austin-Travis County Health Authority saying K-12 school cannot open for in-person learning until after September 7.

St. Edward’s University in south Austin just announced a change for its students and faculty, which includes a revised plan for the majority of classes to be online for the fall semester. As of two weeks ago, the university was still preparing for face-to-face instruction.

President Dr. George Martin and other university leaders explained the changes in a live webinar for students Wednesday, saying the decision was a direct result of an increasing number of students asking for more flexibility.

“We wanted to make sure that you were able to make your choice,” said Dr. Martin. “That you were able to choose a way to continue your education that was most satisfactory to you.”Austin ISD going 100% virtual for first 3 weeks of school, health order calls for fall sports delay 

Incoming sophomore Nolan Screen was one of 900 people watching the webinar at noon.

“Given the recent spikes in the Austin area I thought that was a good idea because I don’t see it going down anytime soon,” said Screen.

St. Edward’s students still have the option to live on campus, which Screen did last year until COVID-19 hit. He’s still talking with his family about what to do this year.

Huston-Tillotson University made the decision in June to go fully online for the fall semester. All campus buildings will be closed to students, including residence halls.

“This decision comes after careful deliberation, consideration of several factors, listening sessions with campus constituents, guidance from local/county/state/federal/global public health authorities and scientific experts, garnering a comprehensive understanding of the increased vulnerabilities of the population we serve, researching the impacts of factors specific and unique to our campus, and continuously monitoring the number of reported coronavirus cases throughout Texas –  specifically Travis County,” wrote President Colette Pierce Burnette in an email to students.

The University of Texas at Austin and Texas State University both continue to plan for a hybrid opening, which means students can choose in-person courses or go all online.

“UT is committed to keeping the campus community healthy while fulfilling our teaching and research missions and we continue to work with our state and local partners as we continually modify and refine our plans,” said Matt Pene, UT Media Relations Manager.

Southwestern University in Georgetown, which was planning for face-to-face socially-distanced courses in the fall, told KXAN Wednesday via email the university is in discussions about fall plans in light of the uptick in infection rates in Texas, and the recent announcements by local K-12 school districts to go fully virtual at the start of the school year.

Concordia University was one of the early adopters of a hybrid model, allowing students to choose either in-person or remote instruction.

When it comes to financial relief for universities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Higher Education Foundation, Greater Texas Foundation, and Trellis Foundation announced that the Texas Emergency Aid Grant Program, launched at the end of April, has awarded 57 grants to Texas higher education institutions.

The Virus and the Vote

Despite the risk from the Coronavirus, more Texans than expected turned out to vote in last week’s runoff elections. More than 955-thousand Democrats voted statewide. That’s more than double the party’s turnout from the 2018 runoff elections.

The virus was likely on the minds of most voters. “I think people are, they’re frustrated,” said Eric McDaniel, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

“If you look at recent polls, what you see is that the majority of Texans thought this was going pretty well in April. We’re finding the majority now think that it’s not going well,” McDaniel explained.

“I think what you have right now is a frustration over the incumbents and a belief that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do,” McDaniel added.

Two current Texas lawmakers will not have seats when the legislature convenes next year. Nine-term State Rep. Dan Flynn lost his runoff on Tuesday. Businessman Bryan Slaton took the Republican nomination for the east Texas district. State Rep. J.D. Sheffield lost his runoff to attorney Shelby Slawson. The Gatesville Republican has been in the Texas House since 2013.

Hegar vs. Cornyn: ‘One of the more interesting races in the country’

The stage is now set for the race for U.S. Senate in Texas. Air Force combat veteran MJ Hegar beat out State Senator Royce West to win the Democratic nomination.   She will now take on incumbent Republican Senator John Cornyn in November.

“This is one of the more interesting races in the country really,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. Cornyn is running for his fourth term in the Senate. Seniority in the chamber can bring power.

“[He’s] in line to become majority leader were Mitch McConnell to retire or lose this election,” Henson explained. Some recent polls in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky show he could face a close race in November.

Sen. Cornyn will have the advantage over Hegar when it comes to campaign cash. “There’s just going to be practically no limit to the amount of money that will flow in to defend John Cornyn both from his fundraisers in the state and from national organizations,” Henson added.

But Henson pointed out that Cornyn’s job approval numbers are below the more popular Republicans in Texas. National politics could also play a big role in the race.

“This is likely to be a tougher race than Cornyn has had in the past because of the national environment and because Donald Trump is such a mobilizing force for Democrats,” Henson said.

Hegar won a close runoff. She says she’s ready to bring Texas Democrats together in November.

“We have too much on the line,” Hegar said in an interview after the runoff. “There’s too many people without access to health care. There’s a pandemic that’s being completely fumbled. There’s an economic crisis. We’ve got kids in cages. We have climate change. It’s just too important for us to not focus on anything other than the mission at hand.”

Sen. Cornyn says he’s ready for the election challenge.

“I look forward to engaging with Ms Hegar and talking about the issues that people here in Texas care about.  Not so much what people at the national level want to talk about but what affects the lives and livelihoods of people here in Texas,” Cornyn said on Thursday.

Dead suspect loophole raised in campaign

Travis County will ask the Attorney General’s office whether it can withhold communication about a police transparency bill that the county registered in opposition to in 2019.

In response to a KXAN public information request regarding county communication about House Bill 147, which aimed to close the so-called dead suspect loophole, a county attorney said he will request guidance from the Attorney General as to whether the information has to be released under public records law.

The dead suspect loophole is an exemption in Texas public records law that allows law enforcement agencies to withhold information about a suspect if that suspect died in police custody. It was the subject of a KXAN investigative series in 2019.

A witness list from the State Affairs Committee of the Texas House of Representatives shows Julie Wheeler, on behalf of the Travis County Commissioners Court, registered against the police transparency bill. No other county registered for or against the bill. The measure eventually made it through the House as an amendment to another bill but was later stripped before final passage.

The hearing took place a month before the death of Javier Ambler who, after a 22-minute pursuit, died in the custody of Williamson County Sheriff’s Office deputies in Austin. Details about Ambler’s death remained secret for 15 months until the Austin Police Department released body camera footage from the incident as part of its investigation into the deadly use of force by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.

Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, now a Democratic candidate in the Senate District 14 special election, led the Travis County Commissioners Court at the time House Bill 147 was being considered but is unsure who within the Travis County government flagged the bill for opposition.

Eckhardt said elected officials in Travis County have the ability to flag or monitor bills during the legislative session. There should be evidence of who opposed the bill, she said, but she was unaware whether the bill was ever presented to the Travis County Commissioners Court.

“I will tell you, honestly, I don’t know firsthand how or even whether Travis County did drop a card in opposition,” Eckhardt said.

During a Democratic candidate forum last week, Eckhardt was asked by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), who is also running in the Senate District 14 special election, why Travis County was the only county to oppose House Bill 147.

“Why my county, Travis County, was the only county in the state of Texas to be opposed to this bill baffles me, I still do not understand it,” Rodriguez said in an interview with KXAN.

Eckhardt said it is reasonable from someone, like the Travis County attorney or district attorney, to want some exemptions to the public records law to be in place.

“Yeah, we should definitely make that information available to the family unless we’re still under investigation and there’s someone else’s privacy right or some on-going criminal investigation that would be implicated,” Eckhardt said.

State Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), who authored House Bill 147, said the bill didn’t have any impact on active investigations. Instead, the bill would have removed the government as the gatekeeper of public information after a case concluded.

Moody said the closure of the dead suspect loophole would prevent stories, like the death of Javier Ambler, from being forgotten.

“If this exemption, this loophole, wasn’t being exploited, this bill wouldn’t need to be here,” Moody said. “People would be doing the right thing, but they’re not.”

The Senate District 14 special election held on Tuesday, July 14 is likely to lead to a runoff. The unofficial results show Eckhardt falling just short of the 50-percent threshold to win the seat outright. If the results stand, Eckardt would face Rodriguez in a runoff to replace retired state Sen. Kirk Watson.

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