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To go or not to go? Austin high schoolers weigh threat of COVID against more isolation as school year nears
Back when being a freshman in high school meant noisy hallways teeming with teenagers and weekends overflowing with dances and games and first dates, Cassidy Miller, 14, had things to look forward to in ninth grade.
But now, as Travis County schools delay opening and attempt to keep the coronavirus from spreading, Cassidy imagines high school to be a warped version of the all-American experience she excitedly anticipated.
Masks on everyone, isolated lunches, Plexiglass dividers, fear of the virus. No pep rallies, no fun.
Cassidy wants to go anyway.
"It's hard not knowing what you're missing out on and feeling like you're not a part of something," she said. "I miss all my friends, a lot."
Weighing isolation against risk
Teenagers and young adults are believed to spread the illness more easily than their younger counterparts, but there are also compelling arguments suggesting the emotional and academic costs of online-only classes could be disproportionately high for older kids.
And so for their parents, the decision on whether to let them go to high school in person or keep them home for online classes is fraught with contradictions.
Pitting academic success and their own mental health against the risk of exposing themselves and their families, older students are in a lose-lose scenario.
"It's such an unnatural and unfair situation to put young people in," said Kate Volti, Cassidy's stepmom, who wants to see a better pandemic situation before she feels comfortable with Cassidy returning in person.
Outside the social aspect, Cassidy also says she needs a collaborative classroom and plenty of structure in order to do well in her classes, which she said was lacking in the spring when classes were online.
Ariela Choiniere, a 16-year-old Austin junior in the marching band, is willing to go online because she believes school isn't safe enough yet—but she's also hoping to find a way to get around it a little bit.
"If there's one day where band says I have to be there, I'm pretty sure [the administration] won't mind if I'm there in school for that day," said Ariela, who faced challenges with the online technology last semester, in part because of her dyslexia.
Considering other kids
Some households also have the complicating factor of younger siblings.
Volti and her husband, Mike, plan to avoid day care and in-person school for their younger son and daughter, ages 8 and 3.
But their learning "pods"—in which a handful of families come to a quarantine agreement and agree to only socialize and learn with each other—would only remain an option if Cassidy doesn't attend school in person, because the other families say they worry about her being exposed and then putting them at risk, Volti said.
"I totally get it. Nobody's doing anything that's wrong or illogical," Volti said. "But it's a really tough situation where it feels like the best interests of one kid is sort of at odds with the best interests of another kid."
Then there's the disconcerting notion of a high school experience—Cassidy calls it "scary"—that will look very different from what students are hoping to recapture by going back in person right now.
"High school and the social dynamics of high school are ingrained in the fabric of our society. We're fascinated, we cling to it. And that's just been turned on its head," Volti said. "Since we can't achieve normal, is the benefit of what is left of that experience really worth the risk?"
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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