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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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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