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."
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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