AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Bradley Wilson didn’t want to sound cliché, but he couldn’t help saying he is taking each day “one day at a time.”
Wilson, an associate professor in the communications department at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, is not sure what the fall semester will bring when the university intends to resume in-person classes.
The state’s major university systems — the University of Texas, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M — all announced they plan to bring in-person classes back in the fall, with a public health caveat should conditions worsen. Some classes would remain online or in different formats. Several other higher educations have come out with their own announcements about intending to have students return to campus in the fall.
A chief concern for these programs is how to find the funding to keep them afloat. Some schools face enrollment shortfalls. Others are cutting some extra-curriculars.
“The COVID-19 crisis has been more disruptive to our Texas higher education institutions than anything else we’ve seen since the end of the second World War,” Harrison Keller, Commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said. “So it’s hard to overstate the impact of COVID-19 on our colleges and universities.”
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board launched a public/private partnership to bring emergency aid grants to the state’s two- and four-year colleges. They set a goal of $2 million for campus needs, to be distributed alongside federal CARES Act funding approved by Congress.
“These funds are going to help supplement with a little additional direct aid to students, they’re going to be able to help provide some indirect aid that campuses that run, for example, food banks or clothes closets that students and their families depend on,” Keller said.
“The campuses can also use these to help them stand up better campus capabilities so that they can get that emergency aid out in ways that are more targeted,” Keller explained.
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said April 30 that state leaders are having conversations about these challenges “every single day.”
“All our institutions are struggling because the reality of it is — we are concerned, enrollment numbers are going down,” Bonnen said. “We don’t want fewer Texans being educated in Texas. We want to remove as many of those hurdles and obstacles to our students continuing their education or very importantly, beginning that education.”
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said he had a recent conversation with Dr. Deborah Birx, Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, about how to minimize risk when students return to school.
One suggestion discussed was starting the school year earlier and leaving more time for Winter Break.
“…with the concerns-slash-anticipation being that whether it be the common flu, or the common flu combined with a resurgence of COVID, there may need to be a longer period of time during the winter break, to not have students gather all together at one time,” Abbott said Tuesday.
State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the state’s House Higher Education Committee, applauded institutions who reacted quickly to shift systems to online-learning.
“Until there is a vaccine for this virus, everyone agrees some measure of social distancing is going to have to be observed,” Turner said. “So there’s going to have to be precautions taken to minimize risk to students and faculty and staff.”
Turner said he anticipated university leaders would need to spend the next several months ironing out details for a safe return.
“College campuses, particularly the dorms, do have potential to be breeding grounds for this virus, and we don’t want to have a situation where things flare up,” Turner said.
“Sanitation is going to be very important. Hygiene is going to be very important, minimizing large numbers of students or people in general in one place is going to be important,” he added. “That will probably affect some classroom layouts and other instructional setting layouts.”
Turner said colleges will be forced to maximize financial aid opportunities, beyond the federal funding, sharing that he hopes state lawmakers prioritize financial aid when they return to the Capitol in January.
“This will be an ongoing crisis and will affect students several years out financially,” he stated. “We need to redouble our efforts to increase student financial aid in Texas.”
“We have some of the best universities and colleges in the world here in Texas, and we want Texans to be able to access them and achieve that goal of higher education,” he said.
One of the gaps in education continues to be a digital divide, State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said.
“What I’m really concerned about it the equity in education access,” González, the newest appointee to the state’s Legislative Budget Board said.
“If you have communities that… are able to overcome the digital divide, and you have communities that don’t, but then we’re going to next year assess them on the same level?” she questioned. “So we need to really start thinking about what was lost— and when in this process— and how can we make sure that students are still treated equitably?”
One of the key points in the struggle for some students and teachers is the trauma those in González’s district and in the greater El Paso region have faced over the last year. A gunman killed nearly two-dozen people at a Walmart in El Paso in August.
“They started the school year in El Paso right after the shooting, so through a traumatic experience, and now they’re ending their school year and another traumatic experience,” González said. “The amount of trauma that has been experienced by my community in the last year is just enough for a lifetime.”
Regardless of how state leaders work to prevent compromised communities in the education realm, these institutions will look different moving forward, Keller said.
“I don’t think anybody’s expecting that we would be able to go back in the fall semester, and have it be just business as usual,” Keller said. “There’s gonna have to be some changes just to make sure that we can keep people safe and they won’t be sick.”
Reinstating rules could add hurdle to claim unemployment
As if filing an unemployment claim hasn’t already been an impossibility for some, it could become much tougher for the 2.2 million Texans who’ve gotten through to the Texas Workforce Commission to file a claim.
Now, as Gov. Greg Abbott is set to loosen some of the emergency restrictions on the restaurant and retail industries, the TWC is looking to tighten some of its requirements for those depending on unemployment checks.
In a Wednesday private call with lawmakers and staff (which hasn’t been released to the public), TWC Executive Director Ed Serna discussed forcing laid-off workers to once again prove to the agency every two weeks that they’re still eligible to receive unemployment — and if they’ve earned any money through work during the two-week period.
The requirement is a standard step in the process for those receiving unemployment claims.
Some of the verification required by the TWC include:
- date you applied for work
- the names and titles of potential employers you communicated with
- list of all applications filed — the agency refers to this as “a list of all your work search activities and the phone numbers, fac numbers, email addresses of each person you contacted. Unemployment claimants are also required to log the results of each search
The TWC could request an unemployment claimant to produce proof of these logs at any time during a benefit year, according to the TWC website.
“If work search requirements were reinstated, Texans would be notified well in advance, at a minimum, two weeks. At this time, we do not have a start date for reinstating the work search requirements. We do encourage people to visit WorkInTexas.com where there are over 480,000 jobs available right now, and we encourage them to visit their local workforce solutions office,” TWC spokesman Cisco Gamez wrote to KXAN in a statement.
“That was just a briefing, a starting point,” Gamez told KXAN. “At some point that work search requirement will need to go back into effect. I don’t know if that’s going to be 50%, 75%, 100%. There’s going to be plenty of advance notice when this goes out — two weeks minimum.”
Any change in the verification waiver would have to be made by the agency’s governing body during a public meeting, Gamez said.
Reinstating the verification requirement could mean even larger backlogs for those trying to apply for unemployment benefits and those trying to request payments.
“I’m both concerned that’s too soon and I’m concerned about the additional administrative burden that will put on Texas Workforce Commission when they’re still struggling to process all the unemployment applications that are coming forward,” Rep. Erin Zwiener told KXAN.
Zwiener was on the call with Serna on Wednesday. Zwiener said until the commission can expeditiously handle the current claims, adding another step for people filing and the agency’s workload does not make sense.
“I am concerned about what additional administrative barriers the work search requirement will create. I have yet to get a clear answer from Texas Workforce Commission on what that looks like for their internal workload and that’s something I want to hear about before they take any steps,” Zwiener said.
Hundreds of KXAN viewers have emailed the Investigative team with complaints of continued backlogged calls at the TWC, despite the agency putting more than 1,000 call takers to work.
The complaints KXAN receives each day are the same as the ones received in late March: people are unable to complete unemployment claims online and are forced to call the agency. Many people are still unable to get a call answered — some are nearly at the two-month mark.
Other complaints continue describing problems with the TWC initially accepting a claim and awarding benefits, only for the agency to deny the benefits days later.
These denials are forcing thousands of Texans back to the phone to attempt to get a TWC call taker to sort the conflict out.
Other people report that they were approved for payments but were then unable to complete the request for payment on the agency’s website.
When asked whether the commission had a plan to potentially continue waiving the verification requirement until Texans start returning to work and unemployment claims drop, Gamez did not have an answer.
COVID-19 outbreaks hit Texas meatpacking plants
Consumers are experiencing price hikes and purchase limits at grocery store meat markets as processing plants adjust their workflow to manage COVID-19 outbreaks.
The Texas Beef Council said beef processing is down 25% due to slower production at processing facilities across the country amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Some of those processing facilities started to have some infection rates in their population and their workforce, they were forced to do some things to address that and that started to slow down,” Texas Beef Council senior manager Russell Woodward explained.
Near Amarillo, the federal government is sending a strike force, which will be testing all workers at plants experiencing outbreaks.
Lara Anton with the Texas Department of State Health Services said a team of public health professionals from the CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, along with local and state officials will be visiting these particular processing plants.
“The team will assess the situation at the plants and make recommendations on ways that they can protect their employees and the surrounding community,” Anton said.
Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller explained this is not a supply issue.
“What we have is a labeling, processing and distribution problem all three of those are wreaking havoc with our meat supply,” Miller said, “I don’t think you won’t be able to get any meat, I think you can, but you may not get the certain cuts.”
Heidi Gollub has been purchasing her groceries online to avoid shopping in stores to reduce her risk of exposure. She said it’s become more of a process to get what she needs.
“Now I’m forced to plan meals for two weeks in advance because I need to know that I’m gonna have what I need,” Gollub said, “I can’t just send my husband to the store once a week anymore. I have to have backups and make lots of small orders to substitute for things that the store may not have had.”
Gollub is also paying more, with prices increasing across the country.
“Less supply, as you know, drives prices up. So you can get ready to pay a little bit more,” TDA Commissioner Miller said.
“There is a bit of a price increase anyways with ordering curbside, and I’m also shopping for my parents and they prefer, you know, grass-fed beef organic, and that has a higher price tag than what I’m used to for my family too. So, definitely we’re spending a lot more money across the board,” Gollub said.
She said it feels like it’s been difficult to find exactly what she needs since the pandemic began, not just in recent weeks when processing plants experienced outbreaks. Woodward explained this is because there was a different problem at the beginning.
“In March, we had panic-buying that occurred. And so everybody rushed the grocery store and was buying as much as they could,” Woodward explained.
He said the processing plants finally caught up to meet retailers’ increased demands until the facilities started experiencing problems of their own.
The higher prices and purchase limits will be around until production at the plants is able to pick up again. “It will probably be, you know, June, July before things start to really get back up,” Woodward said.
Miller explained the products coming from these facilities are still passing inspections by the USDA.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that our food supply is absolutely safe,” Miller said.
The slowdown is also having a big impact on producers.
“Projections for the year of 2020 were somewhere around 27 billion pounds of beef that we’re going to produce. We’ve got those animals queued up in the system to go forward,” Woodward said.
Robert McKnight, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said producers’ inventories keep building up.
“It’s just economics 101 we have got a big supply out there, trying to get them through the processors to the consumers. And as you know when you have a big supply, the price goes up-down, and we have seen a significant price to price decrease on our end,” McKnight explained.
He explained the most concerning part is not knowing what the long-term impact will be.
“To get started, we need to see our processors running at full capacity. And I don’t know when that’s going to happen,” McKnight said.
However, he said there’s no reason for consumers to panic-buy.
“I wouldn’t want to throw any alarm to the consumers. There is plenty of product out there,” McKnight said, “We’re just a little slower getting it to the retail level of the grocery stores.”
Longhorn seniors honor time-tested tradition
With her feet immersed in the choppy water of the Littlefield Fountain, University of Texas senior Joanne Nguyen held up a bottle of champagne and smiled for the camera.
Though the backdrop will look much the same as it has for decades, Nguyen’s graduation photos are being taken under circumstances never before seen by UT students in the school’s 136-year history.
“It just sucks because I feel like it’s over without any celebration, and not being able to be with friends,” Nguyen said.
A biology major, Nguyen is one of a handful of seniors still working to embrace a sense of normalcy during this very strange time.
She plans to do missionary work once she graduates, and plans to return for graduate school.
“Normally during senior photos, you have to wait in line, at the fountain, at the tower, but it’s just really empty and quiet, and it’s just kind of sad,” she said.
She can’t seem to shake that bittersweet feeling. Happy to have reached this major milestone, but disappointed in the circumstances it’s happened under.
“It means a ton because we’ve worked for this for four years, and just grinding through classes and labs,” said Jack Whelan, a mechanical engineering student.
Whelan returned to campus for the first time in more than a month after it was abruptly shut down in March.
“It’s just sad that we don’t get to say goodbye properly, both to the school itself and all of our friends,” he said. “We don’t get to spend that last part of senior year the way we wanted to.”
Others are already having their futures shaped by the global pandemic.
Nursing student Vanessa Brewer took time out of her busy schedule to capture a few final memories as a student on campus.
Brewer joined the workforce early, at a time she’s needed most.
“I’m trying to make the best of the situation and I’m still grateful that I was able to make it this far,” Brewer said. “My training had prepared me for situations like this, so I’m not at all nervous.”
The University of Texas is still planning to hold a virtual commencement ceremony. It’ll be broadcast live online at 9 p.m. on May 23rd.
It hopes to hold an in-person ceremony later this year.
“This is temporary,” Nguyen said. “We made it.”