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After six months out of the classroom, Austin ISD parents are still seeing their children miss out on vital social interactions even as some returned to schools this week.
Sheryl and Dean Jett have twin seniors at Austin High School. Their son is the lead drum major of the marching band, which had their season scrapped, and their daughter is in cheer, which has been holding outdoor practices for a few weeks now but has seen its season limited.
"It is sad not to see our kids in the full capacity of their roles this year. There is no going back, this is it," Sheryl said.
The Jetts' kids have handled the shift to virtual learning pretty well, but what their kids are not getting is the social interaction that is important at that age, Sheryl said.
A study from John Hopkins University supports parents' concerns that schools are much more than a place for delivering educational content and recognizes that students will come back with not only educational setbacks but also setbacks in their social and emotional skills.
AISD began the early phases of reopening campuses this week. Beginning with up to 25% capacity, students in prekindergarten, kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades returned to school buildings for the first time since March.
In a district survey with over 54,000 respondents, 57% of families with elementary aged children and over 70% of middle and high schoolers said they will continue virtually.
On Monday, 104 teachers were absent for in-person teaching, according to an AISD spokesman. Despite being back in session, Education Austin—the union that represents over 3,000 AISD staff members—has requested the district continue remote teaching this fall, and continues communication with the district to find better alternatives.
The Jetts said they would like to send their kids back to school, but plan to wait until the school experience more closely resembles a "normal day," which includes kids working directly with their teachers and changing classrooms. Under the reopening plan, the Jetts' kids aren't eligible to return to campus until Oct. 26, since seniors are among the last group to return.
Students who returned to classes this week are restricted to a single classroom all day, participating in their individual Zoom classes. The Jetts' son would be unable to participate in his daily band class, which includes practicing an instrument during his Zoom meeting due to the disruption for other students in the class.
"Our kids would rather stay home, no mask, with the freedom to move around and participate in both their regular and extracurricular classes," the Jetts said; adding there's also the benefit of having snacks whenever they want.
AISD has been one of the last local districts to reopen in-person, which has prompted some criticism from parents. However, other area districts are taking similar approaches with Round Rock ISD phasing in students, and Del Valle ISD and Eanes ISD giving students the option to choose to stay remote if they like.
"I travel around the state for my work, and I see other schools are back in session, at least it seems that way. I'm not sure why AISD has been slow when other districts are moving forward," Dean said.
Other families, however, feel that their kids will rebound despite the social setbacks caused by the pandemic.
In south Austin, Ismael Flores and his wife are also navigating through the learning shift. They currently have two kids enrolled at AISD, a third-grade daughter at Cunningham Elementary, and a son, who is a senior at Crockett High School. Flores also has two older children, one of whom is attending college online.
"I don't think my kids have missed out on their education. We are fortunate to have technology," Flores said. "My daughter has speech therapy, and it feels like she and her teacher didn't miss a beat. As a parent, that felt good."
He knows some families are struggling and feels fortunate that his wife is a stay-at-home parent, and his job—as a pastor at South Austin Church—offers flexibility allowing him to help out at home.
Flores said while he's sad his son is missing out on the experience of his final high school year, he feels that the district and its teachers are better prepared this time around than when the pandemic hit Austin in the spring.
After some back-and-forth, the Flores family made the tough decision to return to in-person school this week, and their senior will participate in the hybrid model—which includes attending in-person two days, and remotely the other three days of each week.
Flores, who said they have been very open with their kids about COVID, likes that families can opt out of the district plans at any time. They have reminded their kids to think about others when they attend in-person classes, and have talked through safety protocols. He also said his family's interactions with teachers have been great.
"(The district) is doing the best they can with the situation they have. We won't really know how it goes until the rubber meets the road. Let's give our teachers and administrators some grace and encouragement—this is new for everyone," Flores said.
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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