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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Six weeks into the federal COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the number of Ausinites who have received a shot—or two—is growing, with recipients reporting immense relief and sharing happy selfies.
Carly Hatchell, 25<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwNzk1NC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MjE1ODcyM30.1Z8vDzZp-2FpKTXQAGAS4PE3Zmy5i7IGq5LBhTFQwvU/img.png?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C420%2C0%2C420&height=800" id="ec5ec" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="784f573e7e59226846176634e901f648" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" />
(Carly Hatchell)<p>Like most early vaccine recipients in Texas, Carly Hatchell is a frontline healthcare worker. As a psychiatric research associate at Dell Medical School and Dell Children's Medical Center, she received her shot from UT Health Austin, the medical school's clinical arm, which was the first provider in Travis County to receive doses from the state.</p><p>Hatchell received her first shot on Dec. 18, during the initial week of the rollout, and her second shot earlier this month. "I was very clear on my decision," she told Austonia. "Public health is a big interest to me. I actually served as a contact tracer earlier on in the pandemic."</p><p>Other than some soreness in her arm, she didn't experience any other side effects.<br></p><p>Hatchell described her vaccine experience as bittersweet, mostly because although she is now protected most people around her are not. "I have parents (in Houston) who are retired and older, and I know it's really difficult for them," she said. "I kind of wish I could share my dose with them."</p><p>Until most people are vaccinated, Hatchell is planning on operating as though she isn't. "I do feel confident that I am at less risk," she said. "But I haven't reduced my precautions just because we don't yet have the data (about long-term protections)."</p>
Tom Madison, 43<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwODE0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0OTg4MTkzMX0.Iy6vqa1O2lVbX-0wE1pmCFn6zBYgxDUJfop9XNu60GM/img.jpg?width=980" id="6e343" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0c8732e6c36a94506fc53df3dd2ce2d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="480" data-height="600" /><p>Tom Madison is a lieutenant in the Austin Fire Department and the husband of Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who has lupus and is a breast cancer survivor, putting her at high risk of death from COVID.</p><p>Because of Madison's job, where he runs the risk of exposure on every shift, he moved out of <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-fire-coronavirus" target="_blank">his family's home in March</a>. Now that he has received both shots of the vaccine, he feels safer—but is still cautious. </p><p>"I'm still staying in the trailer next to the house," he said. "So we're still social distancing from one another because (Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority) Dr. (Mark) Escott told my wife that we should do it until she gets vaccinated." </p><p>In the meantime, Madison has helped administer vaccines at the Delco Center, where Austin Public Health has hosted mass distribution events. "It was a huge operation," he said. "People waited in line for hours. When they go in there, they were so appreciative. It was nice to see."</p>
Nancy Kahn, 64<p>Nancy Kahn is a nurse who works for a very small company that wasn't able to provide her access to a vaccine. So she began searching for an appointment anywhere she could find one, including a pharmacy in New Braunfels that she heard had one vial—with 10 doses—for healthcare workers. After waiting on the phone for an hour, she snagged a spot at Austin Regional Clinic. "I got lucky," she said. </p><p>Kahn's husband falls in the 1B group as someone who is over 65 years old and who has had cancer twice. So far, she has enrolled him in three waitlists. "He's number 3,000 at one place. He's 600 at another place," she said. "At ARC, I don't know what number."</p><p>Still, Khan is optimistic. "I've got a sister in Arizona and a brother in Illinois," she said. "There's no talk of 1B (eligibility in those states). So it could be worse."</p>
Stephanie E., 35<p>Stephanie E., who works for a law enforcement agency with a no-media policy and asked that her last name not be used, was surprised when her employer offered her a vaccine because she has worked from home the entirety of the pandemic. "There was a lot of guilt," she said. "But I'm also 35 weeks pregnant now. It's not likely they were going to give my dose to a teacher or anything, so I went ahead and did it."</p><p>E.'s midwife and maternal-fetal medicine doctor told her they couldn't encourage or discourage her from getting vaccinated because of the limited data. But she wasn't concerned. "If Dr. Fauci gets it, then it seems safe," she said, adding that she feels better about her upcoming hospital stay—when she'll give birth—knowing that she has an extra layer of protection.</p><p>Now vaccinated, E. hasn't let down her guard. With three kids at home, including an 11-month old, she and her husband continue to be cautious, avoiding visits with even extended family. "They're going to meet two babies at once," she said.</p>
Capri Conlon, 29<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwNzk2NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2ODI3MTkyNH0.yLnRFz4NuS0DXcco02pQngPC-2cP_LW2N7oAWuset4Q/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C635%2C0%2C635&height=800" id="2c42c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d4c1cb0bcd2dd03ece42f6e712bcd37d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" /><p>Capri Conlin is a nurse practitioner for Dell Children's Hospital. Last month, her employer sent out a sign-up link to all eligible employees, but Conlin's name was accidentally left off of it. Luckily, it was a quick fix and she received her first shot on the same day as Hatchell, in mid-December. "There's finally a light at the end of the tunnel," she said after receiving her second shot. "It feels surreal." </p><p>Conlin's patients are children and most of them are immunocompromised. As a result, she has changed her way of life to ensure she doesn't put any of them at risk of contracting COVID-19. </p><p>"Getting the vaccine, it just felt like a big relief," she said. "I just know going into my patients' room I'm not putting them at risk anymore."</p>
Lynne Wiesman, 61<p>Wiesman is a professor at Austin Community College, where she teaches American sign language interpreting. Before the pandemic, she also worked often as an interpreter in area hospitals. </p><p>Although the state of Texas did not include interpreters in group 1A, a local agency successfully advocated for interpreters to be prioritized in Travis County because of their work on the front lines. </p><p>As a result, Wiesman was able to make an appointment to get vaccinated after someone shared the number for a triage nurse at ARC on a private FB page for interpreters. "I do anticipate going back to (work in) hospitals," she said. </p><p>But first Wiesman needs her second shot, which is scheduled for early February. "They've assured us (there will be enough doses)," she said. "That's the only thing that I have a slight concern about." </p><p>Wiesman opted out of taking a photo of herself having received the vaccine. She says she didn't want to rub it in the face of less privileged people who wish to be vaccinated. </p>
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As Major League Soccer's only expansion team this season, Austin FC will receive first pick in all three rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Thursday.