School roundup: Austin ISD, Huston-Tillotson, Texas State and more start spring semester with new rules in age of omicron
Austin ISD alone saw 30% of its 1,200 tested students and staff test positive for COVID on Monday, prompting the district and schools across Central Texas to consider tightening restrictions amid the omicron COVID surge.
Omicron, the highly transmissible COVID variant responsible for the latest nationwide surge, has contributed to the highest COVID rate since the start of the pandemic with one in three COVID tests positive in Central Texas. Sitting at the Stage 5 threshold in Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, there has been a major increase in COVID hospitalizations, including in pediatric hospitalizations with 42 kids hospitalized locally as of Monday—a 281% increase from the week before.
Children still pose a far lower risk of severe complications than adults leading some Central Texas schools and universities to keep the spring semester near-normal. However, others have added new masking rules or switched back to temporary online learning.
Schooling during a pandemic has remained a hot-button issue with some reluctant to see another year with restrictions. Still others, including Round Rock ISD parent Brenda Barraza, think their districts aren't doing enough to protect kids, faculty and families.
"I just feel that the schools should give the parents the option to stay virtual," Barraza said. "With the new variant hitting children the hardest it’s just scary. And what about those with pre-existing health issues, or having them bring it home? My mom, for example, is vaccinated but is disabled and COVID would really hurt her."
Here's a roundup of which schools around Austin have made changes for the spring semester:
Just as the district did last semester, Austin ISD announced that masks would be required on all district campuses in the spring semester. But with one-third of 1,200 tested students and faculty testing positive on Monday, the district sent out an email Monday with a few more recommendations—including encouraging students to wear an N95 mask or double mask if possible.
The district has also announced 11 testing sites, including a mobile van, that began operation on Jan. 3. In response to the CDC's new guidance, the district said that students can come back to school after five days of isolation as long as they are asymptomatic. If a student tests positive, the child's classmates will be notified and will have the option of staying in school and testing on the fifth day or staying home and testing five days later.
In addition to masking and isolation protocols, AISD said extra ventilation, sanitation and social distancing protocols are in place to help keep kids safe. AISD's spring semester begins Wednesday.
But some parents believe the new recommendations aren't enough—a group of over 50 parents have emailed the district asking for a delayed start, outdoor lunches and other new measures.
Round Rock ISD
Oh, really? "Safe and healthy" but the district isn't even implementing safe and healthy policies:— Jen (@TheJenAgain) January 2, 2022
🚫reporting close contacts
Using a character that resembles coronavirus is incredibly accurate though. pic.twitter.com/TTGpbPKZKr
Just two weeks after announcing that RRISD would make masking optional starting Jan. 19, the holiday surge forced school officials to reconsider the move.
A Dec. 30 email said that the district would reverse its announcement and continue to require masks indoors on school property as the district's semester begins Wednesday.
While many parents and administrators are focused on a scandal surrounding a Texas Education Agency investigation of district superintendent Dr. Hafedh Azaiez, some parents, including Barraza, are worried that mask requirements aren't enough to protect students.
While the district does not require masking, Hays County district Hays CISD has begun installing air purifiers throughout its campuses.
In September, the district's board of trustees allocated $4.4 million to buy 1,800 air purification units after the summer Delta variant surge.
The district prioritized Tobias Elementary and Dahlstrom Middle School, which will both have purifiers installed by the first day of the semester on Wednesday. Tobias Elementary closed in September after more than 10% of its campus tested positive for COVID, while Dahlstrom also nearly closed amid a surge.
While Leander ISD does not have masking requirements in place, the district announced Friday that it would strongly recommend double masking when inside school buildings and getting students above age five vaccinated and boosted when possible.
Contrary to the CDC's new guidelines, Leander said it would continue to require 10 days of isolation for COVID-positive students but said they had contacted the Texas Education Agency for clarity and anticipate shifting to five-day isolation in coming weeks.
The University of Texas
A few days after other area universities announced they would start the spring semester with a brief period of online-only instruction, the University of Texas said it would do the same.
The school announced that it would ask faculty to teach remotely from the semester's start date Jan. 18-28, with instructors allowed to teach in person during that time frame if they also provide online learning.
UT also asked students to test for COVID within three days of returning to campus.
Texas State University
Texas state is online for the first two weeks don’t call don’t text 😔— roark (@gymleaderRoark_) January 4, 2022
On Monday, San Marcos' Texas State University became the first Austin-area university to switch to temporary online learning. In an email sent out to students, President Denise Trauth said the school would have online-only instruction from the start of the semester on Jan. 18 through Jan. 31.
Most students were disappointed to have yet another portion of their education conducted online, but students like senior theater undergrad Sarah Morton told Austonia they understand why their school made the switch,
"Being a student of the arts and being in classes that feed off of peer interaction, it’s incredibly challenging to be entering my last year of college reverting back to remote learning for the first two weeks, especially after having a great experience being in person last semester," Morton said. "However, because people in our community aren’t taking steps toward safety like masking up and getting vaccinated, I understand completely why it's necessary for the safety of everyone. While I am not the happiest to be back online, I’m glad we're all just being safe."
All campuses and offices will remain open for in-person or online services, including the school's transportation, Alkek Library and LBJ Student Center, and resident move-in will stay on time.
But students who live on-campus will need proof of a negative test before move-in, and all university-sponsored events will be moved online or postponed until after the online period.
Following Texas State's announcement, Austin private HBCU Huston-Tillotson University announced Monday that it will begin the semester with two weeks of online instruction. University President and CEO Colette Pierce Burnett told students and faculty that all classes will begin online on Monday, Jan. 10 and will stay remote until Monday, Jan. 24.
Residence halls will continue to have move-ins as scheduled, and Burnette encouraged students to wear masks on-campus, report positive COVID test results and symptoms to the school's app, and use on-campus testing and vaccination sites available throughout the semester.
Schools not making changes
Mask mandates remain in place for Del Valle and Manor ISD, while Eanes ISD continues to strongly encourage masking without mask requirements.
Colleges including Austin Community College and St. Edward's University have not changed their policies ahead of the spring semester, with the University of Texas telling Statesman reporter Megan Menchaca that they "do not have any updates to share at this time." UT's positivity rate for students, staff and faculty reached nearly 10% Monday, its highest ever reported.
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A theory that’s been swirling around lately is that the web as we know it is on its way out and something called Web3 will take over.
It’s hard to know what Web3 is without first understanding the original versions. The first web is the 90s Internet where people had their own random websites that didn’t link together, making it decentralized. In Web2, we saw the rise of Google, Facebook and other major players who configured standard ways for people to share and receive information.
Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood and other blockchain developers say a decentralized version of the Internet, Web3, is on the way. Web3 can be thought of as synonymous with cryptocurrency, meaning it is based on the blockchain. Platforms and apps built on Web3 won’t be owned by a central gatekeeper, but rather by users. Those in the Austin crypto community believe to see a growing presence of Web3 in Austin.
Pujaa Rajan, an engineer at financial software company Stripe and adviser for startups, describes herself as a “digital nomad.” She has traveled all over from Hawaii to New York and San Francisco, looking for the crypto community in each place.
Having been in Austin for the past month, Rajan organized a Web3 meetup this week at Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden in South Austin open to folks working in crypto or the crypto-curious. About 30 people showed up. "Compared to a lot of other cities that I went to, it is a lot more open and community-oriented here, which is what Web3 is all about,” she said.
Pujaa Rajan, an engineer at financial software company Stripe, organized a Web3 meetup in Austin during a visit. (Andrea Guzman/Austonia)
ATX DAO member Roberto Talamas, who stopped by the event, talked about the crypto group’s expansion. Web3, in Talamas’ view, expands on the previous versions which allowed people to read, then read and write. Now, he says, people can read, write and own. To Talamas, blockchain technology has powered that ownership aspect, and it can be utilized through groups like a DAO, a group that pools together capital and goes on to make investments or take on blockchain-based projects.
“The ecosystem of work with (Web3) companies here in Austin is still relatively small,” Talamas said. “And that’s one of those things that we’re trying to deal with at ATX DAO is to do all the advocacy work needed to make Austin the best Web3 city.”
Part of that community, however, has gotten a bad rep for being “crypto bros.” Rajan acknowledged that Web3 involves both finance and technology, which are fields women have historically been excluded from. But, she says the decentralization aspect creates a clean slate and a new means to form groups. “I feel like we can kind of take back the power or create a world for ourselves,” Rajan said.
The meetup at Cosmic brought together crypto users to talk about the prospects of Web3. (Andrea Guzmán/Austonia)
Meetup attendee Jonathan Hillis also talked about the idea that Web3 creates an opportunity to start over and how this could be something that grows in Austin. Born and raised in the capital city, Hills has left his Bay Area Web2 Instacart job behind to live in a cabin outside Dripping Springs last year. He and his wife, along with a group of internet friends formed a DAO called Cabin, and he's now writing on the Web3 version of Medium, known as Mirror.
When it comes to the state of Web3, four cities stand out. “The dam broke in Covid,” Hillis said. “Everybody no longer had to live in the Bay Area for tech.”
San Francisco is still rooted in Web2 traits with Big Tech and software as a service venture. New York is financial technology. Miami is another major player. But with Austin, Hillis sees a lot of potential.
“Austin is great at being a place for independent online creators of many types—musicians, but also artists,” Hillis said. “What excites me about Web3 is the opportunities for putting creators at more of the center of the value capture.”
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Once a bargain-hunter's paradise, Austin's reputation as a cheaper California seems to be dissipating. But does money have more value in Austin when compared to other U.S. metros?
For Carson Stanch, who moved to Austin from Brooklyn, New York, to be near family, Austin's lower cost of living was just an added bonus. According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, a $100 bill is worth $98.20 in Austin when compared to the national average in 2020, while it's worth just $84.53 in New York.
Houston native Carson Stanch moved from Brooklyn, New York to Austin just before the pandemic. (Carson Stanch)
Stanch soon realized she was a trendsetter—or perhaps a fortune teller—as the pandemic hit a few months after her move. No longer willing to spend extra money on their more expensive apartments, Stanch said many of her friends and other New Yorkers left the city amid COVID lockdowns.
"It's so expensive to live there (and) all of the reasons why you live in New York, you couldn't really do anymore," Stanch said.
Garrett Watson, a senior policy analyst with the Tax Foundation who wrote a 2018 report on the value of $100 in U.S. metros, told Austonia the report factors in the costs of goods and services with residents' incomes and compares them to the national average. The result is price parity, a number that varies drastically across the country—for instance, a $100 bill won't get you near as far in Austin as it would in more rural parts of the Hill Country.
While a Ben Franklin note was worth $4 more in New York in 2020 when compared to 2018, a $100 bill decreased by $1.60 in value in Austin. Austin's cost of living also saw the 12th-highest increase among U.S. metros from the 2010 to 2020 census.
And as the pandemic's nationwide housing boom gained extra momentum in Austin, peaking at a median home price of $575,000 in June 2021, Watson said the value of $100 could have dropped even further.
"There's just been a chronic hunger for building houses on the coasts and in certain cities in the heartland," Watson said. "Especially this year, we're seeing more and more discussion about that in Austin, and so that is a big, big factor."
Price parity bleeds into other factors as well—in San Francisco, where the value of $100 sits at $82.63, residents are nearly 18% poorer than their higher incomes suggest. But with higher incomes than the U.S. average, they may find themselves more flush with cash when moving to a cheaper city like Austin.
Many out-of-towners have used that extra change to make housing offers much higher than the asking price, Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather told Fox7 Austin.
"All those migrants are bringing with them high-paying jobs who are used to much more expensive housing and they’re willing to pull out all the stops to win these homes and move to Austin," Fairweather said.
But Austin is catching up to those traditional hotspots: the area was predicted to be the most expensive metro outside of the Golden State by the end of 2021.
In just two years, Stanch said she's seen some signs.
"I feel like I look around certain areas of Austin (and) they do feel more similar to downtown Brooklyn," Stanch said. "Some businesses I see might tend to cater to folks who have a little more income."
I cannot believe there’s a Hermès (an Hermès?) store opening around the corner from where I live. Oy vey. The scrappy, cheap, charmingly dusty locals-only South Congress of yore is receding into the past so very quickly. 😭 pic.twitter.com/sUHxI4pX8F
— Cari Marshall (@CariMarshallTX) August 3, 2021
So why not move to, say, Florence, Alabama, where money is almost 20% more valuable?
Watson said the difference comes down to the value of amenities—something the study can't track.
"Part of the value in New York City is all the amenities that you're near, the value of Broadway, the value of being able to get food delivered to your door," Watson said. "So that may be reflected in people's willingness to pay higher prices... there's a lot of really great reasons why people may want to be in Austin from an identity perspective that you can't get in other parts of Texas."
In Austin, tech salaries rose 5% from 2020-2021 as big-name corporations like Oracle and Tesla—alongside Tesla's billionaire owner Elon Musk—flocked to the nation's new "boomtown." With an ever-increasing job market, eclectic culture and reputation as one of the world's best cities for move-ins, Austin's appeal might still offset its price.
But for Stanch and many others, there may still come a time when price wins over location.
"If I was to the point where homebuying was more important than being near friends and family, then I would move to get the home," Stanch said. "I think that's kind of part of my plan."