How 3 Austin families are facing hard choices about work, childcare, COVID-19 as school year approaches
As government officials debate when and how students will go back to school this fall, parents are caught in the middle, trying to account for childcare, work schedules and academic development in the absence of clear guidance.
On Tuesday, Travis County health authorities announced that, to slow the spread of COVID-19, no schools would be allowed to hold in-person instruction until at least Sept. 7.
Austonia spoke with three families about the choices they're making.
Sarah Summers is the single mother of a 4-year-old daughter and a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Originally, she planned to send her daughter to Pre-K at Maplewood Elementary in the Cherrywood neighborhood. But now she faces new childcare and financial constraints related to the pandemic.
"In the fall, I'm not going to put her back in school," Summers said.
Because Summers received emergency pandemic funding from her university department, she is no longer eligible for free Pre-K and would have to pay to send her daughter to Austin ISD.
But, her sister, who also lives in town, was fired from her retail job—"in an email," Summers said—and is now available for childcare a couple days a week.
"All [my daughter] should be doing is arts and crafts and playing outside in the dirt, and she can definitely do that better with my sister than from remotely online," Summers said.
While Summers has mixed feelings about her decision, she appreciates being able to make it.
"Being able to choose in the fall whether school is necessary or not feels like a very privileged choice," she said.
Especially since she worries if school would be a safe place for her daughter.
"I don't think there's anything that any individual school could do to make it feel OK," Summers said.
Her daughter, however, is not conflicted. When Summers explained that she would not be attending school in the fall, her daughter said: "That's great. I love being with you. I hate boring school."
Ellary Jones, Chris Jones, Patrice Jones, Emily Freeman and Abigail Jones are deciding as a family whether a return to school makes sense.
Patrice Jones lives in the North Loop neighborhood with her husband and three of their six children, a 15-year-old rising sophomore and 17-year-old rising senior at McCallum High School, as well as a 19-year-old enrolled at the Aveda Institute.
Because Jones has an autoimmune disease, the family has closely adhered to quarantine guidelines. If the two younger children return to McCallum, they'll have to redouble their efforts.
"Our house is set up so that we could live downstairs and they could live upstairs," Jones said. "We're very privileged in that respect."
While Jones feels that her kids would likely be safe from the virus if they were to return to school, she worries about the risk they might pose to others.
"If we're not prepared to protect the teachers and the staff, then my personal belief is that we don't have any business opening up schools right now," she said. "Even though I really want to send my kids back. They really need it."
Her high schoolers are involved in music and art, which are hard to practice virtually, and her senior is especially concerned about missing out on senior year traditions. But Jones and her husband have urged them to balance their own desire to return to school with concern for others.
"It's a decision they really have to come to themselves," she said.
While she wants her kids to have a say, it's up to her and her husband to make the final call.
"The kids are just lost." she said. "They've never experienced anything like this. I mean, we haven't either. But I think we're better equipped to handle it."
Shaena Robison lives with her husband and their two children—a 6-year-old son enrolled at Austin ISD and a 3-year-old daughter who is signed up for a church preschool—in the Skyview neighborhood.
"I don't think that there's going to be any in-person school [this fall]," Robison said. "Maybe there'll be some online, but that doesn't help as far as childcare."
When the city's stay-home order was in place, in late March and April, Robison's job in health care allowed her to cut back on hours and still receive full pay.
"I was able to be at home with the kids while my husband was working and still getting paid, so that was working well," Robison said. But now things are "totally different."
Robison had to return to her job, which she said takes precedence because the family receives its health insurance from her employer, she earns slightly more than her husband and she is enrolled in a loan forgiveness program that requires her to work full time to receive benefits.
Her husband is a private contractor and works when she's off, which is an imperfect solution.
Initially, Robison was frustrated by the prospect that schools might not reopen.
"I work in health care. And I currently treat and work with COVID patients. I feel like, a little bit, I'm putting my health and life on the line to do that," she said. "Why isn't, at the very least, elementary school an essential service?"
After speaking with some teacher friends of hers, she remains frustrated but for a different reason. Teachers told her they don't have the same resources that are available to health care workers to keep them safe.
"Why aren't they given those resources?" Robison asked. "It's all just frustrating."
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.