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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Austinites love their pets and even more so, they love to name them Charlie and Luna, according to the latest report.
The two names topped both top male and female categories for dogs and cats in the annual end-of-year report from Rover, a site for dog care. While the names Charlie and Luna topped the Austin lists, they came in second nationally. Luna goes on another year of reigning, while Charlie climbed up to the top spot this year.
Top dog names of 2021 in Austin
Top cat names of 2021 in Austin
But that's not to say the year's events and other factors didn't have an impact on how people named their furry friends. Here are some notable trends seen this year in Austin pet names.
- Food-inspired names: Hershey is up 1,030% for dogs, while Sushi is up 944% and Bean is up 544% for cats.
- Alcohol-inspired names: Tequila is up 630% and Merlot is up 330% for dogs.
- Olympics: Manny, after Puerto Rican skateboarder Manny Santiago, is up 730% for dogs. Amber, inspired by U.S. Women’s Skeet Shooting Gold Medalist Amber English, is up 730%.
- Pop-culture: Dogs named Greta are trending up 930%, which could be inspired by rock band Greta Van Fleet.
- COVID: For the first time in Austin, the dog names Rona and Zoom made the list.
- Austin weather: Storm is the most popular new-to-the-list name for cats. Snow was also new to the list.
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Looks like Austin FC is cleaning house—and they're taking a few Verde faves out ahead of the 2022 season.
Following the retirement of defender Matt Besler, the club's original 33-man roster was trimmed to 22 in roster changes announced Tuesday.
(From top left) Players Emmanuel Perez, Jared Stroud, Ben Sweat, Aaron Schoenfield, Brady Scott, Aedan Stanley, Kekuta Manneh and Sebastian Berhalter will not be with Austin FC for the 2022 season. (mlssoccer.com)
Austin FC declined its contract options for six players, including:
- Kekuta Manneh
- Aaron Schoenfeld
- Brady Scott
- Aedan Stanley
- Jared Stroud
- Ben Sweat
Stroud became an early fan favorite for the team after helping teammate Diego Fagundez to the team's first goal in April, racking up a second assist just one match later with another Fagundez goal. After a few months of limited appearances, Stroud started once again in November and attempted his first MLS goal, but no dice.
Manneh, a forward, showed promise as Austin FC's first Austinite: a Gambia native, Manneh played soccer in the Texas capital while in high school and early in his professional career. Manneh showed energy on the pitch but never saw his efforts translate to the stat board.
By the start of the season, Sweat had secured a starting spot as left back for Austin FC but tore his ACL in the Colorado Rapids match on April 17, putting him off the pitch for the remainder of the season.
Both under 23, Stanley and Scott saw few appearances to the Verde pitch. In May, Scott went on loan to play as goalkeeper for USL Championship side Memphis 901. Schoenfield, a 31-year-old forward, has played briefly for various MLS and USL teams as well as professional teams in Israel.
Austin FC also announced that they would not exercise the transfer options for Sebastian Berhalter and Emmanuel Perez, both of whom spent the 2021 season in Verde on loan.
Berhalter, the son of U.S. Men's National Team Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, filled some big shoes in key moments of the season as central midfielder. At just 20, Berhalter started five times in the key position for Captain Alex Ring. Perez made four starts as forward for Austin FC.
(From left) Captain Alex Ring, Will Pulisic and Freddy Kleemann all had their contracts renewed with Austin FC for the 2022 season.
It wasn't all doom and gloom. The club held on to the following for the 2022 season:
- Captain Ring
- Freddy Kleemann
- Will Pulisic
Ring, known as one of the top defensive midfielders in the league, had a rocky but rewarding road as Austin FC's captain in their inaugural season. Despite two red cards that rendered him out of two key matches, Ring tallied four goals and three assists as he led the team throughout the season, earning MLS Team of the Week honors multiple times.
At 22, Kleemann made just three appearances in central midfield for Austin FC but showed potential toward the end of the season. Pulisic wasn't able to start due to fellow goalkeeper Brad Stuver's standout success, but the cousin of Chelsea standout Christian Pulisic has plenty of years left in the tank.
Austin FC now has three goalkeepers, six defenders, seven midfielders and six forwards as the team's brief offseason continues. After the retirement of legendary central midfielder Matt Besler, the team will need to make strong signing options in the back and midfield positions in the MLS SuperDraft and transfer seasons before their first match against FC Cincinnati on Saturday, February 26.
But don't worry about fan favorites Fagundez, Sebastian Driussi or Stuver: all 22 other players are still firmly rooted in place for the upcoming season.
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Just as the world takes a breath from the Delta variant-induced third COVID surge that pushed hospitals past capacity this summer, a new variant—the omicron—is forcing countries around the world to once again consider shutting their doors.
It's too early to tell whether the variant will have the devastating effects of the Delta variant, the Mu variant—which accounted for 3% of U.S. cases before dropping off almost entirely by October—or somewhere in between. But as omicron continues to rise sharply in all provinces of South Africa, the Biden administration is reintroducing some travel restrictions that went into effect Monday.
As the variant spreads to countries around the world, including Canada, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, the World Health Organization declared omicron a "variant of concern"—though some are calling the move premature.
What is omicron?
The omicron variant, B.1.1.529, is now under strict watch from the WHO after quickly spreading throughout Southern Africa.
It's genetically different from the Alpha and Delta variants and has up to 30 mutations in its genetic code, leading some to worry that the risk of retransmission from those who have already had COVID could be high. The strain's mutations could also aid omicron in beating out other strains and spreading more quickly to hosts.
Omicron is the latest version of the coronavirus to cause concern. Here’s what we know about where it’s spread so far and what makes it different than other variants that came before. https://t.co/ncciXnIuw9
— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 29, 2021
It appears to be doing the trick. While an Associated Press report found that case numbers in South Africa are still well below other pandemic peaks—3,220 new cases were reported in South Africa on Saturday— up to 90% of new cases in the South African province of Gauteng are omicron.
The strain's effects seem to be mild so far, and hospitals haven't been overburdened yet, though hospitalizations are rising.
And doctors worry that the full extent of the variant hasn't been realized. Vaccine hesitancy is strong among South Africa's youngest population—22% of those aged 18 to 34 are vaccinated—and most of those infected with COVID have been in those younger age groups. Doctors worry that older age groups will be more adversely affected.
And while experts in the country expected a fourth surge and possible variant, the omicron still came as a "shock" as it quickly spread to all nine South African provinces and other continents. It's now the first strain labeled as a "variant of concern" since the Delta variant.
It's unclear if the variant is more immune to vaccines, although some signs indicate that it's a possibility.
Where has it been detected?
Cases of the Covid omicron variant have appeared in more than a dozen countries as of Monday. https://t.co/2bPapBIYK2 pic.twitter.com/idnQ6LjIfH
— NBC News Graphics (@NBCNewsGraphics) November 29, 2021
The omicron strain still hasn't been detected in dozens of countries, and it's far from the first strain to make a mark since Delta. But it's coincided with a quick uptick in cases in South Africa, where it was originally found, and became the dominant strain in Pretoria, a city of around 750,000, in just a few weeks.
Omicron is now present in nearby Botswana and has jumped on board flights to Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. Hong Kong has detected three cases, while 10 European nations including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Germany have found a total of 45 cases. Canada has detected three cases, and none have yet been found in the United States.
What has been done?
Against the wishes of both South Africa and the WHO, several countries have decided to once again shut their doors.
After detecting an omicron case, Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, while Morocco suspended incoming international air travel for two weeks. Dozens of countries are restricting travel from Southern Africa to South Africa's chagrin—the government said travel restrictions are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
The WHO also called for borders to remain open as closing borders appears to have a limited effect on the spread of variants, and many countries are hesitant to clamp down on restrictions that have limited its citizens for so long.
The United States said in a statement Friday that it would restrict travel from eight southern African countries except for citizens and permanent U.S. residents who test negative for the virus.
White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday that it's "too early to say" whether tightened COVID restrictions will be needed to combat omicron but that citizens must be ready to do “anything and everything” to prevent its spread.
When will we know more?
The WHO said it will take around two weeks to gauge the full effects of omicron, from its ability to evade vaccines to its contagiousness.
For now, countries have once again urged their citizens to get vaccinated. Some vaccine companies have already spoken about the strain, including Moderna, which said Sunday that a new vaccine that protects against the variant could be released in early 2022 if needed.
For now, Fauci said that the country must "prepare for the worst" just in case omicron becomes the culprit of yet another surge.
“Inevitably, it will be here. The question is will we be prepared for it? If and when, and it’s going to be when, it comes here hopefully we will be ready for it,” Fauci said.
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