Claire Partain is a staff reporter covering Austin FC and breaking news. Claire was previously the sports editor for The University Star, Texas State University's daily newspaper, where she covered sports, produced podcasts, and hosted a pre-game TXST football tailgate live series. She prides herself in versatile reporting and finding the human aspect in every story. Twitter: @partain_claire.
Ready to thaw out? Austin airport announces 2 new American Airlines flights to beach destinations this summer
With new destinations to Cozumel, Mexico and Montego Bay, Jamaica beginning June 11, American Airlines will offer 40 total flights from the rapidly-growing airport, including eight international routes.
In just over a year, American has added 30 new destinations from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which saw a record number of new flights in the second pandemic year. The airport has announced a massive 2040 master plan in lieu of ballooning growth, with plans to add 10 new gates, an underground tunnel, an American Airlines Admirals Club and other nifty add-ons already in the works.
“We’re proud to strengthen our commitment to Austin by providing local customers more options to fly nonstop to popular destinations,” Brian Znotins, American's Vice President of Network Planning, said in a press release. “Whether it’s to the beaches of Cozumel and Montego Bay, or the dozens of other destinations we offer from Austin, we look forward to further connecting Central Texans to our global network.”Eyed as one of the fastest-growing airports in the U.S., Austin-Bergstrom's Jacqueline Yaft said the airport is happy to announce the new routes as customers continue to take to the skies at record pace.
“As we see Central Texas travelers returning to the skies, the announcement of new service to two fantastic leisure destinations is perfectly timed for those starting to think about their summer travel plans,” Yaft said. “Today’s news shows the continued strength of the Austin market, and we welcome American’s decision to bring even more air service options to AUS.”
Starting June 11, American will offer a 2.5-hour outbound flight from Austin to Cozumel at 9:20 a.m. on Saturdays, with the return flight arriving back in Austin at 3:20 p.m. on the same day. The airline's Montego Bay flight will also depart on Saturdays, leaving at 8 a.m. before coming back at 3:53 p.m.
Tickets for the new routes will go up for sale on Monday, Jan. 24 at aa.com.
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Pediatric COVID cases have surged to their highest daily levels yet during the omicron surge, causing a "domino effect" on schools and hospitals, Austin Public Health said in a press conference Friday.
Austin is currently at Stage 5, the highest level of COVID risk-based guidelines, as the community transmission rate remains at an alarming level with 1,896 cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days. At this level of risk, the CDC recommends canceling school or moving extracurricular activities online, and per APH recommendations, K-12 schools are requiring masking as some schools briefly shut down due to the surge and current wintry weather.
The department urged residents to vaccinate their children as 91% of children who have been hospitalized due to COVID in the past two weeks are unvaccinated.
Of the 28 children in hospitals for COVID, none are vaccinated—a trend the area has been reporting for weeks, APH guest and Executive Director at Capital Area of Texas Regional Advisory Council Douglas Havron said.
"Tis the season for respiratory illnesses" in pediatric populations, APH Interim Director Adrienne Stirrup said, and more children at hospitals are being diagnosed with combinations of COVID, the flu and the common cold when they arrive.
While variants of the past have usually had little effect on children, APH said the omicron variant has posed a new threat on the youngest portion of the population in recent weeks because of low vaccination rates and rapid spread at schools. At Delta's peak, the city saw 36 new pediatric cases in a day, but Havron said 46 new cases were reported Thursday.
For parents that may have been apprehensive about getting their young children vaccinated, Stirrup said that studies have shown that the vaccine can safely protect children from risk of severe illness and hospitalization from COVID.
"We've now delivered millions of doses of vaccine to children in a safe way, and we know that we are seeing 90% protection from hospitalization and severe illness in children who are vaccinated," Stirrup said.
Chief epidemiologist Janet Pichette said the department is hopeful that Austin will see a dip in omicron numbers as a result of proper masking, testing and vaccinations,
"I like to think that we're close to the peak of where we are and that things will get better over the next week or so," Pichette said. "That's what the projections seem to show... hospitals are still continuing to be impacted, so when I start seeing numbers that tend to flatten out, I'll be a little bit more optimistic that we're on the downhill side."
Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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