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Lake Travis school board requests extended virtual learning period, but some students can return sooner
The Lake Travis ISD board of trustees voted 4-3 on Monday evening to approve a waiver request to the Texas Education Agency to extend the virtual learning period an additional four weeks, with exceptions for families who meet certain conditions and choose to return sooner.
Families with students in pre-K, elementary, 6th grade, 9th grade and special education programs, as well as LTISD district employees with children in the district, may decide to return to in-person schooling as of Sept. 8. The remainder will have the option to return in person as of Sept. 21.
Parents spoke overwhelmingly in support of reopening during the public comment portion of the special called meeting.
Jason Blair, whose three triplets are kindergarteners, urged the board to defy Austin-Travis Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott's recommendation that schools take a phased-in approach to reopening.
"These are such small numbers," Blair said of the COVID-19 case fatality rate among school-age children. "And yes, one kid means a lot, but there's more to this."
Escott cited preliminary data in July that suggested between 40 and 1,370 of Travis County's 192,000 school-age children could die from COVID-19 if schools reopen too quickly. In recent weeks, he has said there is too little data to know what will happen if children return to school and that districts have to weigh the cost of virtual learning against intermittent closures if schools reopen only to see outbreaks emerge.
The TEA allows schools to extend their virtual period for some students up to eight weeks without losing funding, so long as the second four-week period involves "at least some on campus instruction" each day. Once the eight-week period is completed, school districts are required to provide on-campus learning to any families who choose it.
About 60% of LTISD families have indicated that they would like to return to in-person learning on campus, a district spokesperson confirmed to Austonia.
Parents organized a prayer circle outside of the building where the meeting was held, with at least some attendees praying for reopening, according to a report by KXAN.
Kristin Hall told board members that her second grader had sought counseling as a result of school closures.
"You can't form those relationships [with teachers] over a Chromebook," she said. "They need to be in-person. They need that relationship."
Jose Cantu, another parent, said he is concerned about the education gap, especially for Latino students, and that teachers should be considered essential workers.
"If ultimately they feel that the risk is too high, then I suggest they find another career," he said.
More than two-thirds of LTISD's 10,695 students were white during the 2018-19 school year, compared to 27.4% statewide. Just over 12% of their students were economically disadvantaged, compared to more than 60% statewide, and 6% were enrolled in bilingual or ESL programs, compared to nearly 20% statewide.
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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.