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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Austin homebuyers have been through the wringer in the past year—tales of offers well over asking price, sales in under an hour, and months-long supply chain shortages have become commonplace in the city's cutthroat housing market. So it's perhaps no surprise that many homebuyers are looking for greener pastures as they stake out large empty lots along the city's outskirts.
After casually searching for a home for years, Austin influencer and blogger Jane Ko experienced the pandemic housing surge firsthand when she found an empty lot near the airport in the summer of 2020. Stretched thin by high demand and limited supply, Austin's median home prices had already reached a then-record of $435,000 in August of that year, while new inventory grew by just 0.1% in that month.
Due to seemingly ever-increasing demand, Austin's homebuilding market has been busy—if not strained. New listings were up 6% in November 2021, while median home prices had cooled ever-so-slightly to $470,000. The area was ranked the fifth-busiest metro in the country for single-family homebuilding permits in August 2021, according to a National Association of Homebuilders report.
Austin influencer Jane Ko build a semi-custom home on an empty lot near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)
"I think for those of us that have been here, we've seen prices rise in the last five years and I kind of figured if I don't buy now, then I probably won't be able to," Ko said. "I kind of stumbled upon it and I think for a lot of people that's been really the only way to find real estate since the market is so hot."
Austin's inventory has remained somewhat low, especially in the center of town, leading some to believe that homebuyers are being "priced out" by the city's limited options. Area suburbs are reflecting that—the Kyle-Buda-San Marcos region saw 2,900 new home starts from September 2020-21, more than any other Austin submarket.
But with new developments working to keep pace with demand, 2021 Austin Board of Realtors President Susan Horton told Austonia the trend just reflects customer desires.
"I don't think that folks are being pushed by any means," Horton said. "Folks that want to buy out in the rural areas are buying for personal reasons and they're buying because they want the land and privacy. Folks really, truly want to be out. If you want a big lot, it's there."
Like many homebuyers during the pandemic, Ko was happy to scrap Austin's downtown for more space. Because she works from home, she said she and many of her friends are looking for bigger homes and bigger lots in hot areas like Dripping Springs.
Ko had the option of moving into already-built homes within the neighborhood but opted for a custom-built home instead—something that Horton said is another draw for prospective homebuyers.
Austin influencer Jane Ko remodeled her kitchen after building her semi-custom home. (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)
Ko's kitchen remodel took months due to supply chain delays/ (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)
"The desire to be away from the person next door is really most of the time the deciding factor," Horton said. "And then there are those that want to have a house simply because they want to design it themselves, and so those are the aspects that make buying that raw land and building a house really important."
But building a custom home has its drawbacks. Horton said construction loans, land surveying, zoning restrictions and road access are all hoops that can be jumped through with an experienced realtor.
But even through the tedious and stalled homebuilding process, Ko said it's been worth it to create a home made just for her.
"This is a place that I'm hopefully going to stay in for a very long time," Ko said. "And I think because I do a lot of entertaining at home and shoot photos at home, it's really important that my space looks the way I want it to."
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In earlier phases of the pandemic, people took it as the perfect moment to uproot their lives to the newest boomtown. Many, particularly Californians, found a fit with Austin, enjoying the Texas weather and lower cost of living. But for some, it may only be a pitstop.
Melaku Mihret, who works remotely in Austin for a Meta office in the Bay Area, thinks some of the Californians who have moved to Texas in the pandemic may just move here temporarily, save money and then head back. Others have also speculated a possible reverse migration, but it may be too early to tell.
According to the Kinder Institute at Rice University, Texan migration to California has remained steady for years. And when it comes to Californians leaving, the institute says it's less about a pull into Texas and more of a push out of California driven by home prices.
But they're not all staying in Austin. U-Haul data shows departures from Austin were up 18% even as one-way arrivals were up 22% in 2021.
Melaku Mihret, a remote worker a Meta office in the Bay Area, is now living in Austin. (Andrea Guzman)
For Mihret, the biggest driver behind his move was the squeeze of costs in Northern California. If the cost of living wasn’t an issue, Mihret said he’d live in the Bay Area. So if Austin continues to become less and less affordable, would Californians go back?
For Mihret, not many places come close to what California offers. He points to the nature, such as the mountains and lakes, in California and the massive tech hub it is. Austin is “not even nearly close to California,” Mihret said, after acknowledging Austin's growth as an emerging tech hub.
Meanwhile others like Ian Davies, who grew up in Austin and left in 2011 when he was in high school, much prefer living in Austin.
His family had moved to Philadelphia, years passed and he eventually landed a job in financial operations at NBC Universal in Los Angeles, California. When the option of remote work during the pandemic came around, he longed to return home.
“I couldn’t wait to move back to Austin,” Davies said. “Not that I didn’t enjoy my time in LA. But LA is just a whole other beast than Austin.”
Ian Davies does remote work for NBC Universal in Downtown Austin in early January. (Andrea Guzman)
But a downside he says is it's become more expensive in the past year and half since he returned. The Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown metro area had the 12th highest change in a recent study on cost of living increases across the country. And among the nation’s top 10 tech hubs, Austin saw the largest year-over-year increase in average rent this past September, with an average of $1,647.
It's a cost of a growing city. Davies sees a positive in all the growth, as he enjoys living in a city with a diverse population, like when he was in LA.
“There’s a group of Austinites who are very against people moving here, and I’m definitely not part of that crowd. I want to share this city with other people. I think it’s awesome.”
He says he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I hope that Austin can keep its soul and keep its weirdness. Like blues and rock and live music,” Davies said. “I haven’t seen much of that change. I hope people that move here can adapt the spirit of the past and carry that.”
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