COVID-19 Latest: Paxton Says Religious Schools Can Decide For Themselves When To Reopen

Jul 17, 2020

This post has local news on the coronavirus pandemic from Friday, July 17. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.

Austin Public Health reports seven new deaths related to the coronavirus

Austin Public Health reported 232 new cases of COVID-19 in Travis County on Friday, about half the number from the day before. There were seven more deaths.

There are now 469 people hospitalized with the virus in the five-county region (Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell), 10 fewer than on Thursday.

Despite that net decrease, there were 64 new COVID-19 hospital admissions in the region on Friday, bringing the seven-day average of new hospital admissions to 70.3, down slightly from 70.6.

Health officials worry about people infected with the coronavirus overwhelming local hospitals, so they’re keeping an eye on that average and adjusting restrictions based on it and other factors.

A number above 70 could push the area into stage 5, the highest level, of APH’s risk-based guidelines, but health officials haven’t made that move yet. That shift also depends on other factors, like how quickly the average of new hospital admissions is rising, officials say.

Paxton says religious schools don't need to comply with local orders on reopening

Religious private schools in Texas can determine for themselves when to reopen – regardless of local public health orders – Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a letter to schools Friday.

Paxton said attempts by local officials to restrict a religious school's reopening would violate the U.S. and Texas Constitutions and would be inconsistent with the governor's orders.

"In accordance with the protections granted by the First Amendment and Texas law, this guidance allows religious private schools to determine for themselves when to reopen free from any government mandate or interference," he wrote.

In a statement, the city acknowledged Paxton's guidance and said it was confident schools would make children's health a top priority.   

"The City encourages all schools to monitor our local COVID-19 situation and to respond in a manner that offers the greatest safety for our school children and their families, as well as for the teachers and staff of the schools," the statement said.

 Williamson County's Mobile Outreach Team reports increase in behavioral health calls 

Williamson County's Mobile Outreach Team says it has seen an increase in cases of people dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. The mental health first-responders said calls for service have doubled since this same time last year. 

MOT, which is made up of paramedics and licensed mental health professionals, responds however necessary to ensure the safety of callers. They sometimes provide masks or other PPE, help to refill medications, or make referrals to counselors, psychiatrists or hospitals. 

Director Annie Burwell said one reason for the uptick in calls may be because hospitals are nearing capacity and waiting lists have grown long for psychiatric care. The team provides a resource for people who aren’t able to get the immediate care they need.

“We would encourage people to reach out before a crisis occurs – when people are starting to feel overwhelmed or hopeless or unable to cope,” she said. “There's lots of people willing to help and lots of services out there."   

People can contact the Williamson County MOT at 512-864-8277. They can also call the statewide COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line seven days a week at 833-986-1919. 

– Allyson Ortegon

Austin-Travis County Sobering Center returns to 24/7 operations

After limiting its hours in May because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Austin-Travis County Sobering Center is once again operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

“Especially during a pandemic and rising levels of uncertainty, it is important that we remain a constant resource to our community, especially toward our critical mission of relieving pressure in emergency rooms and jails,” Executive Director Laura Sovine wrote in a press release. “It is just the right thing to do for all.”

According to the center’s website, everyone admitted to the center will be given a mask to wear and kept 6 feet apart. Everyone entering the building is also subject to a temperature check.

The Sobering Center is a place for police and EMS to bring intoxicated people rather than a jail or hospital. It’s unclear how bars being closed has affected the number of people being brought to the center; no one from the Sobering Center was available to answer questions Friday.

Leander ISD opts to go virtual-only for the first three weeks of school

Leander ISD has joined the Austin, Round Rock and Pflugerville school districts by opting to conduct the first three weeks of school virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Whenever students do return to Leander campuses, the Board of Trustees offered an idea of what the year will look like. Students from third through 12th grades will wear masks at all times, except when eating or for medical reasons.

Teachers, staff and visitors will need to self-screen for the coronavirus before coming to campus. But those plans were met with concern by some board members.

"I will tell you right now, there is absolutely no way that I am going to support bringing teachers back into the classroom given the current set of circumstances with COVID," board member Jim MacKay said.

Since more than 300 Leander ISD students don't have online access, the district will purchase hot spots for 250 students. The remaining students will have specialized help.  

Hays CISD delays start of fall semester

Hays CISD will delay the start of the fall semester until Sept. 8 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The announcement came at a special-called meeting of the Board of Trustees Thursday night.

Along with shifting the start of school, once school does begin, it will be entirely online for the first three weeks. "This is not what we want. This is not what anyone wants," board member Vanessa Petrea said. "And I think we're all going to need a lot of grace. This is a Herculean effort that is going on and everybody needs to be applauded for the work that went into this. I think it's very, very good."

​The earliest date students would return to school for in-person learning is on Monday, Sept. 28. After that, it's up to parents to decide whether they want to keep their kids at home or send them back to school.

Austin Public Health opens new COVID-19 testing site at Pflugerville Stadium

Austin Public Health will open a new coronavirus testing site at Pflugerville Stadium — also known as "The Pfield" — on Monday.

The site will operate Mondays through Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon and have a testing capacity of 300 people per day.

This new testing site comes with the surge of coronavirus cases reported in the area, which has seen an increase of almost 415% since June 4, according to Austin Public Health data.

You can take an online assessment to see if you qualify for COVID-19 testing through Austin Public Health at austintexas.gov/COVID19.

Austin ISD to host virtual information sessions about reopening schools

Austin Independent School District is planning two virtual information sessions to help families and staff understand what the return to school will be like during the coronavirus pandemic.

The district says participants will see what a “day in the life” of distance learning and on-campus learning will look like. The sessions will be streamed on Facebook Live, followed by Spanish interpretation.

At-home, distance learning will be discussed Wednesday July 22 ,from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. On campus, face-to-face learning and safety protocols will be discussed on Thursday, July 23, from noon to 1:30 p.m.

People can submit questions ahead of the livestreams here, or during the events.

School starts Aug. 18. AISD announced earlier this week that it will not offer in-person classes for the first three weeks. Classes will be taught virtually during that time.

COVID-19 Dashboards

What's happening statewide? Check out special coverage from KERA for North Texas, Houston Public MediaTexas Public Radio in San Antonio and Marfa Public Radio.

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