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The Austin Independent School Board is considering pushing back the first day of school to Sept. 8 and applying for eight weeks of virtual-only classes, citing "local health conditions" and the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately affects Hispanics, who represent a third of teachers and more than half of the district's students.
The moves will be voted on in a special meeting called for 9 p.m. Thursday night. The meeting, which will be held virtually, will include a public comment portion at 9:35 p.m. The vote will happen after the public comments.
The meeting agenda cites the following local health conditions:
- High COVID-19 numbers in Travis County (averaging 367 new cases per day in July 2020)
- Current Austin Public Health Risk Guidance places Austin, Travis County in Stage 4
- 3-4 people of 1000 are estimated to be infected with a current multiplier of 3
- COVID-19 disproportionately impacts the Hispanic population in the Austin-Travis County area. Some 34 percent of the Austin population is Hispanic, while 57 percent of hospitalizations are among Hispanic patients. Thirty-two percent of AISD staff and 56 percent of students identify as Hispanic, according to agenda documents.
"This delay will allow for our community to adjust to the latest in-person requirements in the changing health conditions of our city with safety at the forefront of every decision," reads the agenda item on the vote.
In addition, AISD will limit in-person attendance for the first four weeks of school as already planned but vote Thursday on whether to ask the state for a waiver to allow an additional four weeks, delaying full access to on-campus instruction through early November.
Students without access to technology will still be allowed in-person instruction, as per state guidelines, but full access by all students would be delayed if the board approves the action and the state allows it.
"In the event a board extends the initial four-week transition, at least some on campus instruction must be provided each day during the extended transition period," the agenda reads.
On Monday, Education Austin, the union representing 3,000 AISD employees, asked the district to consider pushing back the official first day of school, which Gov. Greg Abbott said was within the rights of local districts, not health officials.
AISD posted this document with frequently asked questions, updated July 30, about attendance, enrollment, class size and more during the upcoming school year.
Click here to find out more and learn how to participate in the public comment portion of the meeting.
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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.