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In the hills of West Austin, bordered by the Colorado River and Barton Creek, Eanes ISD schools ease back into the school year with a stockpile of student laptops and tablets and a bevy of teachers at ease with virtual learning tools.
Across town, on the more economically diverse East side, Del Valle ISD has less experience with online learning, having to start from scratch: First make sure all students have WiFi and get them laptops, then teach the teachers how to run virtual classrooms.
As the school year gets underway in the Austin area, local schools all face the same challenge: Educating kids during a pandemic. How they address them depends on their resources and the priorities of the families in the district. Aside from some guiding principles, the state has largely allowed each district to work within the needs of their communities.
A look at two Austin districts that are economically and demographically different from each other provides a glimpse into what some of those differences are, and how schools are approaching a struggle they all share.
(According to 2018-2019 data)
On Wednesday, Eanes ISD welcomed its 8,000 students back for online learning. Eanes Superintendent Tom Leonard said after three weeks the district will transition to in-person instruction for students with the most needs, up to 25% capacity.
"We're going to have to be agile and flexible and have to adapt to different governing agencies, whether it be TEA, the governor, the county or the city," Leonard said. "If conditions and stages get better, we'll bring in more kids. If conditions and stages get worse, we've got a plan to go back the other way."
In a district survey taken earlier this month, 61% of Eanes parents said they want their children to return to in-person learning as soon as the option is available to them. The other 39% of Eanes parents opted for continued virtual learning, although some parents are considering forming learning pods of students on their own. However, that practice can be expensive, and usually considered a solution only for more well-off families, with some exceptions.
In the event that in-person classes are shut down, the students will be able to transition fairly easily because, as Leonard said, his district is "blessed" to have had virtual learning for a long time and students supplied with laptops and tablets for a decade.
"Our kids all have devices," Leonard said. "Our teachers have always been using different software and different online materials, so it is not as big of a leap for us to function in a remote setting as it has been for some other school districts."
That would include Del Valle ISD, which spent the summer scrambling to get technology to students, training its teachers and prioritizing school-based resources for students in need, said Ana Rush, Del Valle ISD's executive director of academics and accountability.
"We want to make sure that the lessons themselves are rigorous and engaging and that we're closing the gaps … that the students may have," Rush said. "We want to make sure they're still progressing academically."
The district is staying online for the first eight weeks of school, which started last Monday. Some 15% of the district's nearly 11,000 families did not have reliable internet access at home. To remedy that, the district surveyed several companies to provide hotspots for everyone.
"Right now we're ... at 99.9% connectivity through WiFi and through the hotspots, which we did not have in the spring," Rush said. "And that's something we were able to solve to make sure that we started the school year with all the students being able to connect."
A sizeable percentage of their students also use lunch programs and counseling services, so district officials spent much of their prep time arranging for students to have access to those resources, Rush said.
On the in-person vs. online choice, Del Valle parents are split right down the middle. Half want to send their kids back to school at the earliest opportunity, many because they are essential workers, Rush said.
But the other half fear exposure to a family member if their child goes to school. Eighty-five percent of Del Valle ISD's students are Hispanic, a demographic that has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 in Texas and nationwide.
Naila Martinez, 36, said her kids received their devices from the school, which helped her in her decision to keep her 5th grader and high schooler, both asthmatic, at home for online school.
"With flu season, their asthma flares up already, especially the fifth grader, and just imagine in the middle of this pandemic with these symptoms of COVID and the regular flu overlapping—it's just going to be mayhem if any one of them goes to school," Martinez said. "I'm always going to have that fear hanging over me, like what if they get COVID?"
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After a long, long year without live music, Austin has waited patiently for a return that has finally come. Festivals are planning returns and even venues that adhered strictly to safety protocols during the pandemic are feeling safe enough to gather again in person.
Starting in just a few short days, you can finally enjoy what makes Austin, well, Austin again. Here are a few of the live shows to look forward to.
Stubb's Waller Creek, 801 Red River Street
For the first time since the pandemic shut the iconic venue down forcing canceled and rescheduled shows, Stubb's BBQ is reopening its amphitheater to the public for concerts starting with a series of five sold-out Black Pumas shows, each with different openers, from May 26-30. It may be too late to catch Black Pumas this time around but Stubb's already has a host of other shows scheduled up through December. You can catch Surfaces, a College Station-based jazz-pop-hip-hop and vocals heavy duo known best for their song "Sunday Best," on Stubb's Stage on June 25 while tickets go on sale this Friday.
Next at Stubb's is electronic duo Louis the Child on July 28 and 29 on their "Euphoria Tour," followed by Umphrey's McGee on Sept. 9.
Mohawk Austin, 912 Red River Street
Likewise, Mohawk Austin has remained closed for more than a year since the onset of COVID-19, even tweeting "Thanks bro but we ain't gonna do it till it's safe," in response to Gov. Greg Abbott lifting all safety restrictions back in March. Starting May 27, Mohawk is officially back with Heartless Bastards and opener The Tender Things.
From there, Mohawk has an exciting lineup—Jukebox the Ghost will play on Sept. 10, Bully and opener Lightning Bug on Sept. 17, Big Freedia and Too Many Zooz on Oct. 4 and Beach Bunny on Dec. 14, with several talented artists in-between. Keep checking back though, Mohawk will continue to add shows and is currently planning on operating at 50%.
Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River Street
Though it is making a later comeback than Stubb's or Mohawk, the Frank Erwin Center will make a huge return on Aug. 14 featuring Tame Impala. If you missed their highly popular set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2019 or you want to relive it, this is the chance to do so. Plus, you get the added benefit of being able to see the stage, though you will still be watching with around 16,000 other spectators. Michael Bublé will have you swooning when he comes to perform on Sept. 20 and Chris Stapleton is taking his "All American Road Show" live on Nov. 4.
Nutty Brown Amphitheatre, 12225 US-290
Holding some socially distanced concerts earlier this year, the Nutty Brown Amphitheatre isn't stopping there with rap artist Ginger Billy playing two sets on May 7. Nutty Brown has a star-studded lineup ahead: Austin-based Bob Schneider on May 8 and other Austin favorite Shinyribs will grace the stage May 29. A little further down the line, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts will take over on Aug. 21 followed by Styx on Oct. 23.
Texas Performing Arts Center, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
If you prefer a little bit more visual appeal to go with your music, the Texas Performing Arts Center is reopening in-person after consistent online events. First up is Cody Ko and Noel Miller, a multi-hyphenated YouTuber-podcaster-comedian duo, who will perform their "Tiny Meat Gang – Global Domination," on July 31. Of course you can't miss The Beach Boys, coming to the theater on Oct. 24, or a two-week long production of Hamilton from Dec. 7-19. For all the young ones that have missed going out in-person, "Disney Princess—The Concert" is coming to the Texas Performing Arts Center on Feb. 6, 2022, performing timeless gems like "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast and featuring all their other favorite princesses. Tickets go on sale this Friday.
Remember to jump on those tickets–Austinites have been missing their live music!
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For Marco Silvestrini, gelato takes him back to his childhood when he and neighborhood kids in a small Italian town would end their day at the local gelato shop. It was part of what made some of the best memories for him.
He's since been offering that same experience for the past seven years with his artisanal gelato shop, Dolce Neve, in Austin, alongside his sister and her husband.
Leo Ferrarese, Marco and Franscesa Silvestrini run Dolce Neve. (Dolce Neve)
While gelato always played a big role in Silvestrini's life, it wasn't in his plans to take on a business with his favorite treat. After a few years in New York working as a management consultant, he felt he was missing out on something. "I decided to take a step back and started thinking, what could... I do to make society better and happier, even just for a moment," Silvestrini said.
He thought back to his childhood and the role gelato played in it and wanted to offer the same experience to Americans.
Once he had the product idea down, it came down to location. Growing up among farmers in a small community in Central Italy, Silvestrini knew he wanted a slower pace of living than New York, so he asked around. The answer he got: "Austin." The only thing he knew about what would become his future home was it had a Formula 1 track.
But after visiting once, he felt a great sense of community he didn't feel in The Empire State. "I felt it was not just a good place for a concept like mine, but also a good place to live because at the end of the day, you cannot just think about your business," he said.
"Dolce Neve" translates to "sweet snow." The shops offers 12-18 flavors at a time. (Dolce Neve)
Similarly, his sister Francesca Silvestrini was experiencing the same feelings while studying for her Ph.D. in Ohio before teaming up with Silvestrini. She went back to Italy to be properly trained in making gelato while Silvestrini focused on the business plan. They brought Leo Ferrarese, her husband, onboard and opened their first shop on South First Street in January 2014. The rest is history.
On the menu, you'll find various traditional and innovative flavors that rotate out. Some of the staples include chocolate, 100% vanilla from Madagascar and salted caramel. Other rotating or seasonal flavors include whiskey and pecan, organic cantaloupe sorbet, goat cheese and pecan, almond custard and tiramisu. They've created over 300 flavors together in the span of the business.
So what's next for the shop? Lately, Silvestrini has been thinking a lot about that. With two locations in Austin, one in Houston—he's just not sure if expanding more is the right move. Maintaining a quality product and good service is of utmost importance that he's not willing to sacrifice.
"In order to be happy, it's not about making money, it's about being an integral part of the community," Silvestrini said. "There have been so many cases in which I think what I did today really made a difference in somebody's life."