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By Aliyya Swaby and Emma Platoff
On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.
On Tuesday, as many of the state's biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.
Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state's biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn't under control.
In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio's North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.
Only about half of Seguin ISD's students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.
Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.
"Things are ever changing. The one thing I've appreciated that stayed constant was the interest in students returning has been at 50%," Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez said of his 7,200-student district east of San Antonio. "I believe that we can safely social distance at that number in our buildings."
Parent interest in in-person instruction varies greatly across the state. In some hard-hit parts of the state, like Mercedes ISD in South Texas, the vast majority of parents are opting for virtual learning. In Texarkana's Bowie County, where coronavirus cases have stayed relatively low, most Maud ISD parents have already sent their kids to school in person.
Local health authorities continue to clash with school districts over whether it's safe to open, concerned that Labor Day festivities could lead to higher case numbers, as Memorial Day did this spring. Fort Bend County health officials sent Katy ISD a letter in late July urging it not to open classrooms or start extracurricular activities "before late September in the vast majority of cases," until the "effect of the Labor Day holiday can be determined."
Katy ISD, which has schools in Fort Bend, Harris and Waller counties, plans to reopen classrooms Tuesday.
When schools were forced by the pandemic to hurriedly switch to virtual learning in the spring, most Texas districts didn't require teachers to conduct live virtual lessons, but more are attempting that type of instruction this year. That means many teachers will have to simultaneously instruct two groups of students: those in front of them, and those watching from their iPads and laptops.
In Seguin ISD, most of the lessons will also be recorded for students who couldn't find time to log in and watch live, important in a district with 71% low-income students, Gutierrez said. "You have parents that have multiple jobs. They're shift workers. To expect that our students are going to go through their entire day at home alongside the face-to-face learners is really unreasonable when they don't have that support, that structure or that supervision at home. They would be missing out on instruction."
He acknowledged that those students will be missing out on the benefits of live instruction: having a teacher correct their pronunciation of a challenging word or being able to ask questions about a complex math problem in real time.
Austin ISD starts virtually Tuesday and plans to open classrooms in early October. Eight-year-old Isla Arb will start third grade at Graham Elementary School online Tuesday and will continue virtually to avoid endangering her grandmother, who has cancer, said her mother, Katie Arb. Both Katie Arb and her husband work full time, so they hired another mother to watch Isla and her 4-year-old sibling on weekdays. They're paying her about $15 per hour, as well as paid sick leave and vacation, replacing some of the pay she had received as a dental hygienist before the pandemic.
"The bulk of her responsibilities are going to be to keep the 4-year-old away from our 8-year-old," Katie Arb said.
Isla is excited about getting to wear a unicorn onesie to virtual school every day at the messy desk in her bedroom. But she got quiet when she thought about her classmates and teachers returning to campus in October. "I don't want them to get coronavirus," she said sadly.
Even students who return to Austin ISD's campuses will effectively be learning virtually. When she goes back to school in early October, Austin ISD high school theater teacher Rachel Seney will sit in a classroom, with a mask on, leading a virtual class through musical numbers or dramatic exercises. Students spread 6 feet apart will sit in front of her on their laptops, each one completing assignments or watching a different teacher deliver instruction.
Students will spend nearly the entire day, including lunch, in one classroom, a plan intended to reduce the public health risks during a pandemic. If one child or staff member gets infected, it will be easy to trace exactly who they were in contact with — meaning there's no need to shut down entire campuses or districts.
Seney, who teaches at predominantly white and high-income Anderson High School, said she sees the model as more equitable since all students end up learning virtually in some way. "You're not teaching equitably if you have some students in front of you and some students online. Now that some schools have started going back and are using that model, I'm already seeing it's not happening," she said. "It's not really effective."
Her sister Blair Seney will be doing just that at Cypress Falls High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, miles away in Harris County's suburbs. A special education educator, she helps modify assignments or provide extra time on testing for students with disabilities alongside a primary classroom teacher.
"We're expected to teach at the same time the kids that are in the classroom who don't have access to technology and the students at home who are on the computer," Blair Seney said. She has been a constant agitator for more safety requirements in schools and more flexibility for teachers terrified to return in person. In August, she stood in the back of a school board meeting with a sign that said, "Your attendance is required at my funeral," while her mother, also a teacher at the school, spoke at the public hearing. That month, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD teachers unsuccessfully sued the district, asking not to be required to report to their campuses for training.
About 42% of students have decided to attend school in person, according to a district survey. Often, Blair Seney pulls students into her office, a tiny storage closet with no ventilation, for one-on-one assistance. "I'm not sure how that's going to work," she said. "It is definitely a thought that's keeping me up at night, trying to figure out how we're going to make all this work."
Health precautions vary among districts and schools. Under Gov. Greg Abbott's order, everyone over the age of 10 must wear a mask. But guidance from the Texas Education Agency leaves districts largely on their own to design protections against a virus that spreads undetected in as many as 40% of those who have it. In many districts, maintaining 6 feet of distance among students will simply not be possible.
"It's very scattershot," said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "There's a huge variation in the policies that are being put in place within districts to protect the health and safety of educators, from physical structures to logistics to access to [personal protective equipment]. Absolutely there have been districts that say, 'Here's your two gloves and your mask, that's all you're getting.'"
In Houston-area Humble ISD, where kids have been back in classrooms since late August, "it has been surprisingly normal," said Timbers Elementary School fifth grade teacher Stacey Ward. "Question mark?"
The 10- and 11-year-olds who tramp in for Ward's science and social studies classes have been surprisingly compliant about wearing their masks, though she sometimes has to remind them, with a single word — "mask!" or "nose" — to ensure the fabric covers their noses, too. Every other student sits behind a plexiglass barrier, spaced out as far apart as possible, but with 18 to 20 students per class, it has not been possible to keep 6 feet among them.
Instruction stops five minutes early so kids can wipe down their desks. Ward collects their books at the end of the day. There is no sharing of supplies.
And Ward has made one more adjustment. Typically, when students enter or exit her classroom, they get three options: high-five, hug or handshake.
This year, she's pivoted: "Now, it's an elbow, a knee or a foot," she said in a phone interview after her fourth day of in-person school. Elbow bumps are the runaway favorite.
Afterward, the students know to take a squirt of hand sanitizer. "It's normal to them now," she said.
ProPublica's Mollie Simon contributed reporting.
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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17 years and three medals later, Osterman's last ride with USA softball is over. What's next for Cat?
Nearly two decades after her debut with the University of Texas and 17 years after her first Olympic gold, softball icon Cat Osterman stepped off the Olympic pitcher's mound for the last time with a silver medal to take back home.
Osterman, a three-time Olympian who has been called the "Michael Jordan of softball," will officially retire from the international realm at 38 after a decorated career that included Olympic golds, years of retirement and plenty of adversity—from a worldwide pandemic to dashed gold-medal dreams.
Osterman and her crew left Tokyo on a bittersweet note on Tuesday with a silver medal in hand.
Osterman with Team USA in 2008. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
Osterman in the final in 2021. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
After a year of sparse in-person training and over a decadelong hiatus, Team USA and Osterman flew to the finals. In five games, the team beat Italy (2-0), Canada (1-0), Mexico (2-0), Australia (2-1), and Japan (2-1).
Deja vu struck in the final match. On one side, Osterman and fellow 2008 Olympic teammate Monica Abbott took the mound; on the other was the 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, a familiar foe who helped the team beat Team USA last go-round.
"Just like 13 years ago," Ueno said in a press conference, "we were facing each other in the final."
Ueno, who had lost hopes at gold to Osterman in '04, outpitched her longtime opponent with six scoreless innings as Team USA was held to just three hits. The same team that squandered their gold-medal hopes 13 years before had done it once again.
Your Tokyo 2020 Olympic Silver Medalists 🇺🇸#TokyoOlympics | @TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MOMNOedHUd
— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 27, 2021
"There's a little bit of disappointment in not bringing home the gold since that's the eye on the prize when you go over there and you know you have a shot at it," Osterman told Austonia. "But more than anything, I'm very proud of the way our team handled everything that was part of this journey and not just the six games."
It's that very loss at the 2008 Olympics that partially motivated Osterman to get back on the mound. She officially put down the glove in 2015 after six seasons with the USSSA Pride, took time with family and began coaching at Texas State University.
Osterman helped ace Randi Rupp to greatness while a coach at Texas State University. (Active Voice Health/Twitter)
She thought her Olympic endeavors were well over—until talks of reinstating softball into the Games reentered the conversation.
"It wasn't until 2016 or 2017, that it ever crossed my mind to possibly put the USA uniform on again," Osterman said. "After the World Championships in 2010, I walked away, and I thought that my career on the international stage was done. So this was a pleasant kind of new opportunity."
Three years after facing any competition, Osterman was on the field once more with world-class athletes. Some, like Osterman and Abbott, had been playing together long enough to form a formidable "Fire and Ice" duo on the mound. Others had just graduated college.
Osterman said playing with a younger generation of athletes was one of the most rewarding aspects of this year's Games.
"It can be very different when you have 24- and 38-year-olds on the same field," Osterman said. "The adversity put us in some challenging positions and we came through with flying colors. And this group will forever be special just because what we had to go through is so different."
While on the mound, Osterman's job was to give the team a calm start. Off of the field, she felt her role had much of the same effect: she knew that new Olympic feeling, and she served as a deep breath to her first-time teammates.
"There's no words to explain how nervous and excited you get knowing that the whole world can be watching," Osterman. "I think using those emotions and figuring out how to get all our butterflies lined up and going in the right direction, so that way we were all moving together, was kind of my role outside of pitching."
We've heard her retire once before, but this time Osterman said she's gone for good—even from coaching. After her final time with Team USA on Sept. 27, she plans on returning to Austin, where she'll look to work for a nonprofit.
A gold and two silvers will have to do for one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. softball history.
"To be able to say you're a three-time Olympic medalist is a pretty special deal, right?" Osterman. "I played for a long time. But those are the pinnacle, in my mind, and kind of what elicits the dream to keep playing."
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Hospitals are facing a "significant" increase in admissions of pregnant women due to COVID-19 complications, Austin-Travis County health officials say, revealing what could be a long-term side effect of the virus.
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes met with three maternal medicine specialists on Monday morning to warn of yet another COVID-19 Delta variant concern: severe cases of the disease affecting unvaccinated mothers-to-be.
The doctors said unvaccinated pregnant women face an increased risk of preterm births, long-term effects, preeclampsia, ICU stays, stillbirths, being put on life support and even death if they are unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned that we are not getting that population of folks to hear this message of the safety of vaccines, so today we're assembled, one and all to say, wear a mask and please get vaccinated," Walkes said. "Vaccinations are the way to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations and death."
Medical Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. David's Women's Center of Texas Dr. Kimberly DeStefano said 95% of pregnant women admitted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, stressing that all pregnant and lactating women should get the vaccine not only to protect themselves but to protect their babies from infection, which can be passed through breastmilk or birth.
"We know that the earlier in pregnancy you are vaccinated, the more antibodies are present at the time of birth for the infant," DeStefano said. "This is something that's very important, both during the pregnancy and postpartum."
Catching COVID-19 while pregnant can cause adverse effects on the baby, particularly because it increases the risk of preterm births. Baylor Scott & White Maternal Obstetrics Chief of Maternal Medicine Dr. Jessica Ehrig, said that preterm births are one of the "biggest impacts" on childhood development.
"We know that (preterm births) can have long-term effects depending on how early a baby's born," Ehrig said. "It increases the risk for long term respiratory issues, for blindness sometimes (and) for neurologic development delays."
Since mid-July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a steep rise that sent the city back to recommending Stage 4 guidelines. As the seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations surpassed 50 admissions, Stage 5 guidelines could be on the horizon. The city reported 54 new admissions and 546 total new cases on Friday.
Delta is more contagious than chickenpox, Walkes said, and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the virus without symptoms. The group of doctors asked everyone, especially pregnant women, to mask while in public as local hospitals pass the Stage 5 threshold.
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