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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Mount Bonnell<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTUyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MDEzODU5NX0.SQVQYQc5VpT_UQe-BQsexRgUp1yIUbjiB-Hz7cAgkUE/img.jpg?width=980" id="6a82f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6909566cc1a80e66660ddb3153882a5f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1599" data-height="1066" />
(Spawnzilla/CC)<p>Mount Bonnell is probably the most well-known scenic locale in Austin and has been since the 1830s. Known for its panoramic view of downtown, Lady Bird Lake and the Hill Country to the west. Today thousands of visitors ascend the 106 stone stairs to the summit to take in the beautiful view. Located in Covert Park in Northeast Austin, the trail is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjg0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjg2NjY4OH0.3hTVUhMTrJ7FkqWgYivC03M7NbQGhkvM85St6nSACF8/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C240%2C0%2C240&height=800" id="6db33" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="be5523bfa32d06f91a0e0915e7f1fd3b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" />
(MX/Wikimedia)<p>The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is a 10-mile boardwalk with numerous entrance and exit points and is Austin's most recognized and popular recreational trail. Not only is it an Austin favorite for exercise, it also hosts one of the most beautiful views of Austin's skyline the city has to offer. The paved trail runs over Lady Bird Lake, also known as Town Lake, giving people an undisturbed view of Downtown Austin overlooking the water. The trail is dog friendly with a leash and wheelchair accessible.</p>
Zilker Park<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc5Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDE0NzMzNn0.hE8NKm_6Ldoi36TZcTVHAbc9K6H1FWTqnI8cK60u3jY/img.jpg?width=980" id="2cb32" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4696ca4392a59a956761ae419b161a7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Mwyzykowski0821/Wikimedia)<p>Zilker Park is Austin's pride and joy. The park hosts ACL every year (when there isn't a pandemic), the Trail of Lights each holiday season and other events in the city. The 351-acre space is the go-to locale for Austinites who want to get outside and enjoy a direct view of the city skyline--usually serving as a backdrop for any event held at the spot. As one of the only scenic destinations to allow dogs off-leash, it is the most dog-friendly spot in the city. Zilker Park is wheelchair accessible (although it might be best to avoid the park after rain).</p>
Barton Creek Greenbelt-Sculpture Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTU2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTU1NDE2NX0.kM0EJgiwl60yCLYd2xMtqPUM9ukysu_KmQhMiP6XGMo/img.jpg?width=980" id="75e17" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="64cdd0ef728567c25261e17227855fe6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
(Austonia)<p><strong></strong>Sculpture Falls is a hidden location on the 7.9 mile Barton Creek Greenbelt. The best way to access the location is via the Hill of Life and the Trail's End access point in South Austin at 1710 Camp Craft Road. The scenic views of this location may not be sweeping views of the city skyline, however, the glistening pools and waterfalls, the trees hanging over the water make the spot one of the most underrated in Austin. The hike back up the Hill of Life is 1.5 miles and mostly on the sun, so make sure to bring plenty of water. The location is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
McKinney Falls-Upper and Lower Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODY3MTE0NH0.yBqNznABvsJCBp_tdrREOMI20eWy3a4dNLwBbe4SKAc/img.jpg?width=980" id="135bf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c712742e6dbe4592a7294aad89b9f655" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1760" data-height="796" />
Photo of Lower McKinney Falls
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>McKinney Falls is one of the many Texas State parks and is a series of two waterfalls–an upper and lower falls. Both spots feature limestone waterfalls along Onion Creek and swimming pools. The lower falls are more shallow and recommended for families with younger children while the upper falls are a bit deeper. Pets are allowed on a leash in the park, however, they are not allowed in the water at the falls. The park is not fully wheelchair accessible. There is a $6 fee for adults to enter the park and children under 12 can enter for free. During COVID, it is recommended to make reservations to enter the park if you plan to visit.<br></p>
Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTc0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDEyNzM3Mn0.HATaya2WqEf1dRD6zO2WMvoCQii7mHKa9oJ9H2Huxqg/img.jpg?width=980" id="f503b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="96c77fa947db2d4ae07efc545785fc12" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2040" data-height="1530" />
(Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center/Facebook)<p>Located in far-west Austin, Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center is the farthest out from Austin's city center and is another location that may not offer sweeping views of the Hill Country, however, the center features some of the most unique views in Texas. The highlight of the preserve is Westcave at the head of the canyon. It features a 40-foot waterfall backed by caves, diverse vegetation and an emerald pool. Canyon tours are not dog-friendly but are wheelchair accessible; they are offered every Saturday & Sunday. Self-guided hikes are offered Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and require reservations.</p>
Red Bud Isle<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0MTk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MTcwNDA4N30.ImQe01BIolSJVNBCJAFbQz1WfuDP8fitr_XXZWNytQk/img.jpg?width=980" id="767c3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a21655c41f9c7da188eb99dd0371d2dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lady bird lake dog winslow swimming" />
(Austonia)<p>Red Bud Isle is one of the most popular areas for pet owners to let their dogs off-leash in Austin. The small island lies just below the Tom Miller Dam on Town Lake. The edge of Red Bud Isle offers a view of Town Lake and the densely-packed trees to either side. Depending on the time of year, colorful kayaks and stand-up paddleboards add some pop of color to the view. The 13-acre park is, of course, dog-friendly and wheelchair accessible. Be careful with your pets during the summer months, however, as there have been <a href="https://austonia.com/city/algae-killing-dogs" target="_blank">toxic algae blooms two years in a row</a>.<br></p>
Wild Basin Preserve<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzEyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTMwODY3N30.aw3W_bvqThNlF_9WGE5GVte7ajhJoPQxQEUnM4FCT4Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="0b1a3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="615c86b10cc2c034b9518f73534cad3e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">The Wild Basin Preserve is 227 acres of Hill Country woodlands owned by Travis County and St. Edwards University as part of the larger Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which protects the unique environments of seven endangered species and 28 threatened plant and animal species. The preserve is home to the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler as well as many other Texas-native plants and wildlife. There isn't any one location that is the highlight of the preserve—the highlight is spotting the local wildlife. While it has been closed for the past several months, Wild Basin is expected to open for limited hours in late-January. It is not pet-friendly and is somewhat wheelchair accessible.</span><span style="background-color: initial;"></span><br></p>
Barton Springs<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NTY4NzMzMH0.1Nd-a5CEiPDSaLOB_nJYAZiHC8dZVvS5l4QOJhHsvd8/img.jpg?width=980" id="721f6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="82bc4f00174755913a86a103f01ad6ad" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="720" data-height="403" />
Section of Barton Springs on the paid access side. (austintx.gov)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Barton Springs is another one of those locations that doesn't have one particular highlight. There are two sections to Barton Springs: one section requires a small entrance fee and allows for a little more space to sprawl out, whereas the other, much larger, section is free but sometimes requires a little creativity with where you set up camp. Both sides feature cool, clear, blue water from the natural springs in the area. </span><br></p>
Congress Avenue Bridge<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkyNjcxNn0.ieWjFaKRtsoVrudyGVtp_q3xlM8ghFgd7Y-QZqQVOoo/img.jpg?width=980" id="c4dfa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e69c74aa25973d14285a49d8b070bd1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="641" data-height="426" />
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>The Congress Avenue Bridge goes over Lady Bird Lake and is a place to get a very unique view of the city. Every year, Austinites gather on the bridge to witness up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats feed on 10-30,000 pounds of insects. The best time to view the bats is mid-August when you can see them ascending into the evening sky. This area of Austin is wheelchair accessible and pet-friendly with a leash.</p>
The Middle of Town Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzExOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjIxNDQzN30.DAnxtXZTYH60LicTxw4J_qzJ7CSZ2ez7hNi8qFaxjJ4/img.jpg?width=980" id="a81af" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4dc3198f3a64889a16d7f442f56e0a2c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
Evening view from the middle of Town Lake
(Laura Figi/Austonia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This one might seem a little odd, but get yourself a kayak or stand up paddle board and enjoy the view of the city from the water. It's a unique perspective on the city that is probably the best representation of why this city is so unique. There are also some boat tours throughout the year. Boat tours are wheelchair accessible. The lake has multiple entrance points and pets are allowed on water vessels, but not in the water.</span><br></p>