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When the pandemic shut down Austin student Grant Sherwood's school along with the rest of the district in March, continuing his education online was simply not possible.
For Grant, a 20-year-old with cerebral palsy and severe cognitive disabilities, education is almost entirely social and emotional skill-building, practicing communication and finding joy in being with people like himself.
So when his teacher at Rosedale School attempted Zoom video sessions with him, as educators across the district were instructed to do, Grant was so dismissive that it was almost comical, said his father, Dr. Stephen Sherwood, a pediatric dentist in Austin.
"He would just start saying 'goodbye!'" his father said with a chuckle. "His learning is very, very delayed. He has the ability to learn, but learning online is not even an option for him."
In-person or not at all
Earlier this week, Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin and Travis County, told county commissioners that he strongly agreed with a recent national study urging schools to prioritize younger children and special education programs as they come up with ways to reopen schools to in-person classes.
They were welcome words for the Sherwoods, who are outliers in an increasingly tense national debate, as parents and politicians weigh the pros and cons of sending kids to school in person during a pandemic or keeping them home to learn virtually until COVID-19 cases flatten.
For Grant, who will need round-the-clock physical and medical care for the rest of his life, there really is no debate, and there is certainly no "pro" to online learning.
This fall, Grant will be entering his third year at Rosedale, an Austin ISD campus that specializes in teaching and caring for children with severe disabilities up through age 21.
Without the doors open, there is little role that Rosedale—which Sherwood described as a warm and nurturing place—can play in Grant's life.
"He enjoyed riding the bus, he was at school all day long," he said. "His teachers, his classmates—he just really thrives on having his regular social interaction with the people in his life."
Social distancing is difficult
Sherwood, whose wife Krista stays home to take care of Grant and their other three kids, ages 13, 16 and 18, while he works, also recognizes how difficult it would be for students like Grant to follow health guidelines at school.
In Grant's case, he coughs a lot, and he won't keep a mask on, which means the family can't really take him anywhere that requires it, Sherwood said.
"They don't have the ability to really control how they spread their germs," he said. "It's just a hard situation because we want our teachers to be safe, too, and don't want to put them at additional risk."
He believes the school will advocate for Grant and the other students, and that administrators will work to bring them back as soon as possible.
Sherwood said they'll take anything they can get, because while the tight-knit family has enjoyed some aspects of so much togetherness, the isolation has taken its toll on everyone.
"His cognitive disability is such that he can't tell us, 'Man, I really am bummed out because I can't see my teachers and my friends,'" Sherwood said. "But we've noticed that he's not really been himself."
With no plans announced and no real idea when Grant will be able to go back, there's not much to do but play the waiting game that's been dragging on through an exhausting summer.
"We'll just keep doing what we've been doing," Sherwood said. "One day at a time."
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.