100% Austin news, info, and entertainment, straight to your inbox at 6 a.m. every morning.
In five minutes, you're fully informed and ready to start another great day in our city.
After closing briefly at the start of the pandemic, Open Door Preschools reopened one of its three Austin locations in early April to serve essential workers. Since then, the local business has seen enrollment increase enough to reopen a second location but not enough to keep its third location from closing permanently.
The financial impact of the pandemic coupled with the workplace modifications required to keep staff and students safe have been hard on everyone. "We're seeing a lot of stress and burnout in our teachers," Executive Director Cynthia McCollum told Austonia.
When the vaccine rollout began in mid-December, it was a bit of a tease for educators and child care personnel. "I certainly didn't think there were people on the list who should wait behind teachers and childhood educators," McCollum said. "But it was frustrating and really discouraging for my teachers and myself. It felt like our work and what we'd been doing to keep families safe and able to go to work was not a priority and wasn't valued."
This all changed earlier this month when the Texas Department of State Health Services announced school staff and child care personnel were now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. The change came after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services directed states to expand eligibility to these groups if they hadn't already.
The Texas State Teachers Association and Education Austin, a union representing Austin ISD employees, attributed the change to President Joe Biden and criticized Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for not making it sooner. "We're very excited, very pleased that the president prioritized teachers and school employee workers," EA President Ken Zarifis said. "We think that it's been a long time coming."
A targeted rollout
As state health officials have expanded eligibility criteria for the vaccine, some already eligible residents have expressed consternation: supply remains limited, and expanded eligibility only increases the competition for the limited available appointments. In response, local providers have been working with school districts and local childcare providers to ensure their staff are able to make appointments.
Prior to DSHS' announcement, Austin Public Health and other providers were already working with area school districts and child care providers to connect educators in group 1B—which includes people 65 and older and people 16 to 64 with a medical condition—to appointments.
McCollum fell into this category. She spent more than two hours at her computer before she was able to secure an appointment. "It really reminded me of the early 2000s trying to get concert tickets," she said. But the payoff was significant. "At least for me, personally, where I got my first shot I got a palpable relief," she said. "I was closer to feeling safe than I had for almost a year."
An Austin ISD elementary reading teacher receives a dose of the vaccine at an Ascension Seton vaccine clinic in early January. The district and hospital system partnered up to provide vaccines to staff who fell into the 1B group. (Ascension Seton)
Since the state expanded eligibility criteria to include educators, McCollum estimates that more than half of Open Door's 54-person staff has been able to get at least one dose. The preschool is offering staff a modest cash incentive—McCollum declined to say how much—to encourage them to make an appointment, especially given the time required to do so.
After DSHS' announcement, APH announced that it would host School Saturdays, setting aside around 1,500 initial doses as part of its weekly 12,000-dose allocation specifically for educators and childcare personnel. Travis County is also working with area school districts to provide access to its weekend vaccine clinic at the Circuit of the Americas, a mass event coordinated with Ascension Seton, CommUnity Health Centers and Bastrop, Caldwell and Hays counties.
Over the weekend, we vaccinated 14K people at our Central TX Collaborative Drive-Thru Vaccine Clinic. This clinic has vaccinated 27K people, mostly low-income, uninsured people and school staff.
Thank you @CommUnityCareTX, @AscensionSeton, & over 900 volunteers! #TCoVax pic.twitter.com/vvEsAAXXQz
— Travis County Judge Andy Brown (@TravisCoJudge) March 15, 2021
Within the first week of the state eligibility criteria change, APH had vaccinated approximately 5,500 teachers and 2,168 childcare providers. This does not include those vaccinated through other providers or at the COTA drive-thru clinic. DSHS estimates that there are 32,884 educators and child care personnel in Travis County.
Such targeted outreach has helped educators access vaccine appointments despite the high demand and technical glitches that may be stymieing other eligible residents. "People are going out and they're getting vaccinated," Zarifis said, adding that Austin ISD expects that any staff members who wish to be vaccinated should be able to be so by the end of spring break, which is this week. "That's a much different narrative than two months ago."
Super thankful @ltisdschools hooked their teachers up with vaccines! pic.twitter.com/oUQrhIge4x
— Coach LeDoux (@CoachLeDoux5) March 12, 2021
Room for improvement
Despite this progress, there are still snags in the system. Cathy McHorse, vice president of the United Way for Greater Austin's Success By 6 early childhood coalition, said child care personnel, in particular, may have trouble accessing appointments because they tend to be underpaid and lack health insurance, limiting their options to providers who are providing vaccines to people outside of their existing patients. It may also be hard for them to get time off from work when vaccine appointments are available. "They don't have paid leave," McHorse said, and there are no substitutes in childcare.
Childcare personnel may also lack access to the communication infrastructure—made up of school email addresses, identification badges, listserv access—or union representation that has helped school employees make appointments.
"What makes childcare more complicated than schools is that schools are big, bureaucratic institutions," McHorse said, adding that there is no state database of childcare workers in Texas.
For these reasons, the work APH and the COTA drive-thru coalition are doing to reach out to educators and childcare personnel directly is essential. So too is the work of people like Mari, a children's book author who lives in Circle C and has helped coordinate vaccine appointments for around 100 people, including teachers. (She asked that her last name not be used so that she isn't bombarded with new requests.)
Mari initially helped schedule a vaccine appointment for her mother, who is considered high risk and lives in Florida, in January. Since then, she has helped many others, using a Slack channel that scrapes provider sites for available appointments and other tricks.
When DSHS announced it was expanding eligibility to teachers and childcare personnel, Mari started helping them make appointments, too. She was frustrated by Abbott's announcement around the same time that he would lift the statewide mask mandate and other pandemic business restrictions, which she thought was premature, and wanted to channel her anger into something productive, like helping teachers get vaccinated. "They just don't have time to go on the internet and stalk these sites for these appointments that open up for two seconds before they're filled," she said.
Mari has been able to make an appointment to everyone that has reached out to her, typically within 24 hours. "They're so grateful because they're so frustrated," she said. "It shouldn't be so hard to get a vaccine if you're eligible for them."
- Austin ISD sees enrollment fall amid COVID, raising funding ... ›
- Texas teachers now eligible for COVID-19 vaccine - austonia ›
- Austin ISD receives COVID-19 vaccine for eligible staff - austonia ›
After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
- City of Austin reveals two possible sanctioned homeless camps ... ›
- Austin City Council will review possible homeless camps - austonia ›
- Sanctioned homeless sites raise concern after Prop B passes ... ›
Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
- Austin businesses resume mask mandates amid Stage 4 shift ... ›
- Here's where you can get vaccinated and avoid Delta today - austonia ›
- Unvaccinated Austinites at risk of Delta variant with hospitals seeing ... ›
- Should Texans be concerned about the delta variant? - austonia ›
- Delta variant, unvaccinated fuel rise of Austin COVID cases - austonia ›
The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
- New Moody Center secures The Weeknd for grand opening in 2022 ... ›
- Dell becomes founding partner of Austin's new Moody Center ... ›
- A peek inside UT's new $338 million Moody Center - austonia ›