AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Texas continues to set daily records for COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. The spike in cases comes as schools across the state make plans to reopen in the coming weeks.
Teachers across the state are reacting to new guidelines set by the Texas Education Agency for returning to classes this fall.
Education Austin, a teachers union based in Austin, held a news conference to express the concerns of teachers.
“We’re dying to go back to work. But we are not willing to risk death to go back to work,” Education Austin president Ken Zarifis said in Wednesday’s meeting.
Several teachers expressed their concerns for personal safety and health. Others said the safety protocols put in place by TEA will be hard to enforce.
“I don’t know how much any of you have tried to get a sixth, seventh, eighth grader to do something for almost eight hours a day. But good luck getting them to keep their mask on and stay away from people for eight hours a day,” middle school teacher Eric Ramos said.
Education Austin is requesting AISD to postpone classes in-person for at least nine weeks, and offer online classes instead. However, that would not comply with TEA’s current guidance.
Pflugerville High School teacher August Plock, a member of the Texas State Teachers Association and president of the association in his area, had similar questions.
“How do we maintain a six foot social distancing level in our classrooms? Who’s going to have to wear masks in the classrooms that the governor’s orders are for Texans who are 10 and older?” Plock said.
Plock is a teacher, and a parent, so he said he feels torn between both sides.
“As a parent, I am concerned. Also, I know that our public school systems are designed for face to face interactions is how we teach. That’s how our schools are designed. That distance learning may not be as effective as in-classroom learning. But at the same time, it’s not worth risking everybody’s health,” Plock said.
“I recognize the best way to teach our students is in classroom. But I also recognize that it may not be safe for us to do that right now. And I know that there are a lot of teachers who are very scared about coming back into the classroom right now,” Plock continued.
Some districts, including Plock’s, will be offering teachers who are at a higher-risk to teach online classes from their classrooms, while other teachers at the school handle students learning in-person.
Plock said he will be teaching his social studies class in-person.
“I guess I probably have those same fears myself, but at the same time, I recognize that I may be called on August 13, to start school,” Plock said Wednesday.
Some Texans asked to pay back unemployment benefits
When the childcare center where Ashley Cates sent her two children closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was forced to stay home with her kids.
Cates worked at a convenience store and restaurant in Lexington, Texas, about 50 miles northeast of Austin. Staying home meant no paycheck, and no paycheck meant filing for unemployment benefits from the Texas Workforce Commission.
Cates received word from the Texas Workforce Commission that her unemployment claim was approved because the pandemic forced her out of her job.
“We can pay you benefits,” stated the documentation, dated April 20.
Cates got those benefits for almost three months, but then received a letter dated July 2 from TWC stating she was overpaid for 12 weeks worth of benefits. She’s now on the hook for returning nearly $1,742.
“I don’t know how I’m going to repay it, I don’t work, I stay at home to take care of my kids,” Cates said in an interview on Thursday.
“I was depending on this money to pay my bills, and now I can’t, and I don’t know what to do,” she said, as tears welled up in her eyes.
Cates said she has attempted to contact TWC’s executive director, ombusdman, and has called close to two-dozen times, only to to be “booted out of their system because it says we can’t take any calls right now” due to long wait times.
TWC has paid out over $18.3 billion in benefits using state and federal money, an agency spokesperson said Thursday. A majority of that has come from federal funding.
More than 3.7 million Texans have filed unemployment claims since mid-March, the agency reported Thursday — adding up to over five years worth of claims in roughly four months’ time.
TWC has notified 47,000 Texans who received unemployment benefits that the agency overpaid those benefits and the money they distributed is owed back. The overpayment claims total roughly $32 million, a TWC spokesperson said.
A TWC representative said overpayment is rare.
“For the majority of people receiving benefits, it is unlikely to happen to them,” TWC spokesperson Cisco Gamez said Thursday.
The 46,000 overpayment claims is 1.27% of the more than 3.7 million unemployment claims TWC has received during the pandemic.
Gamez said the $32 million in overpaid benefits “is a big number” but represents less than .2% of the total amount distributed to Texans through the Texas Workforce Commission during the pandemic.
Cates said if TWC had an issue with her unemployment claim from the beginning, it should have been addressed before they began paying her benefits.
“This has put me in a really big bind,” Cates said. “And I find it real, real ironic they send this letter out right before my next payment request, which is scheduled for this Sunday, and now I can’t do it because I’m disqualified — because it’s a mistake on their part.”
Cornyn on senate runoff and stimulus timeline
Many Texans have seen a surge of ads and social media posts from the candidates running for the Democratic Party nomination for U.S. Senate. But some of the posts and ads are coming from the Republican incumbent.
Sen. John Cornyn’s campaign highlighted a poll showing Royce West gaining ground on MJ Hegar. Cornyn’s campaign also bought air time for radio and TV advertisements painting West as being too liberal for Texas.
Hegar called the Cornyn campaign’s move to spotlight West an attack on her campaign. She suggested that Cornyn wants West to win because he doesn’t want to face Hegar in November.
The Senator laughed off the idea that he’s having an effect on the race.
“I’m not voting in the Democratic runoff, so I’m not gong to have a vote in who wins and who loses,” Cornyn told KXAN Politics Reporter John Engel.
“I think both of them are pretty much out of the mainstream of Texas values and voters,” Cornyn concluded.
Runoff races draw voters to the polls
Despite worries about COVID-19, voters are still turning out for the runoff elections in Texas. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir believes voter turnout could reach 20-percent on Tuesday. Typical turnout for a runoff is usually much lower.
Besides the high-profile U.S. Senate runoff, races for Congress and Texas House are also attracting voters to the polls.
In central Texas, there is a tight race to determine who will challenge Republican Congressman Michael McCaul in November.
In 2018, Democrat Mike Siegel finished less than five percentage points behind McCaul in the District 10 race. Siegel is back in the runoff, hoping for another run at the incumbent.
“That’s a race that many of the political watchers label as likely Republican, but isn’t out of reach,” explained KXAN Politics Reporter John Engel.
Siegel supports policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All. “He’s endorsed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” Engel said. “It’s more of that progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
But Siegel faces a strong challenge in the primary from a newcomer, physician Dr. Pritesh Gandhi. Gandhi has worked with patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic at a non-profit clinic.
“He is more middle-of-the-road, more in the realm of a Biden-like candidate,” Engel said. “He believes in Medicare for all who want it, and some of those more moderate to liberal ideas.”
Gandhi has found success when it comes to fundraising. His campaign has been able to air television ads in the weeks leading up to the election.
“So interesting to see that Pritesh Gandhi as this new outsider candidate has outraised Mike Siegel, even though Siegel came within five percentage points of McCaul back in 2018,” Engel added.
Elections for the Texas House are also getting attention. One factor is the looming battle over redistricting, and both parties are looking to flip seats in the Legislature to gain more influence in drawing voting lines.
“In the Texas House, I would argue that some of the most interesting races are in central Texas right now,” said Nexstar State Bureau Reporter Wes Rapaport.
He pointed to Texas House District 47, which Democrat Vikki Goodwin flipped from red to blue in 2018. The Republican runoff could be close.
The race pits Jennifer Fleck, an Austin attorney who has the backing of the hyper-conservative Texas Values against Austin Police Officer Justin Berry. Governor Greg Abbott endorsed Berry.
“There’s also a battle down south of Austin in Hays County, House District 45,” Rapaport said. The runoff features Hays County Republican Party General Counsel facing Carrie Isaac, who runs a non-profit for disabled veterans. Isaac’s husband vacated the District 45 seat in 2018 to run for Congress.
The winner will challenge incumbent Democrat Erin Zwiener in November. She flipped the seat from red to blue in the 2018 election.