Wellness

Tips for Contacting Elected Officials

There are all sorts of reasons why a person would find themselves needing to communicate their position to an elected official, or person in power. It's vital that we take our voice and use it in the interest of the things we care about, and that we're directing our energy toward those who can make the changes we want to see, or hold their ground in the face of a potential sway. People don't know how you feel unless you tell them, and personal stories about how constituents are affected is vital to elected officials understanding their community. It's our duty to share our stories, our needs, and our values, especially when there is a lot at stake. But I'm Just One Person Yes, and you matter. Your story and your experience matters. And it is critical to get those stories heard. The system is designed to take your opinions and needs into account. And once we get comfortable sharing our beliefs and needs in this way, we can encourage others to do the same, which improves the system for everyone. It's like singing karaoke. You only have to do it once, and then you realize how easy and awesome it is, and you can't wait to do it again. (Just me? The point is it isn't as hard after the first time.) But I Share On Social Media. If you're finding yourself so passionate about an issue that you're posting about it on social media, but not following it up with letters, emails, and phone calls to those who are "in charge" we run the risk of feeling like we're speaking out, but those words aren't getting in front of the right audience. Here are some tips for effectively communicating with officials to get your voice heard Writing a Letter [Date] The Honorable [Name] [Office Address] RE: [State the topic or bill/resolution numbertate the topic or bill/resolution number] Dear [Assembly Member/Senator/Councilperson etc.] [Last name]: My name is [your first and last name] and I am a [family member /service provider/advocate/community member] who resides in your district. State why you support or oppose the bill or other issue. Choose up to three of the strongest points that support your position and state them briefly and clearly. Include a personal story. Tell your representative why the issue is important to you and how it affects you, your family member and your community. Tell your representative how you want them to vote on this issue and ask for a response. Be sure to include your name and address on both your letter and envelope. Sincerely, [Sign your name] [Print your name] [Include your full address] Sending an Email Follow the template for the written letter, with a few formatting changes: While it's not always possible, try to avoid bulk emails or blind copies and email each representative individually. [State the topic or bill/resolution number in the subject line] Dear [Assembly Member/Senator/Councilperson etc.] [Last name]: My name is [your first and last name] and I am a [family member /service provider/advocate/community member] who resides in your district. State why you support or oppose the bill or other issue. Choose up to three of the strongest points that support your position and state them briefly and clearly. Include a personal story. Tell your representative why the issue is important to you and how it affects you, your family member and your community. Tell your representative how you want them to vote on this issue and ask for a response. Be sure to include your email address under your residential address in your signature. Sincerely, [Your name] [Include your full address] [Include your email address] Making a Phone Call You will often be speaking with a secretary or aide, and not the representative directly. Speaking authentically is welcomed, but like with any communication, so is civility. State your name, zip code, and/or District, and identify yourself as the legislator/representative’s constituent. You will often be speaking with a secretary or aide. Briefly make known your position as they keep track of the issues that people call about. Have your thoughts organized in advance, which will help you to keep the call brief and to the point. Share how the issue affects you personally. Thank them for their support. Some Additional Tips Speak up often. We have to continue to hold our elected officials accountable, and your position doesn't stop being important. Collaborate. Are you a part of an organization or coalition? Do you have a group of people who feel the same way? Consider adding your names to a collective statement for greater impact. Pick the right targets. Make sure that you're writing to the people who are actually in control of the decisions, and those who might influence them. You can include people close to the decision makers, to ensure that your topic is front of mind for those in the representative's circles. Let us know how you're getting your voice heard!

Austin Public Health Addresses Pods

Austin Public Health released some guidance documents for those hosting and joining pods this week. Details cover everything from handwashing to background checks, and provides pod hosts with some boxes to check (and to add to operating policies) and pod participants with some things to watch for. Since COVID is why school is closed in the first place, these helpful tips include evidence-based ways to slow the spread, and additional public health considerations to keep our kiddos safe. Learn more here from APH here

Community Learning Spaces

As we approach the school year, many are wondering how they're going to make it happen. Juggling new routines, pods and programs, school work and work-work (or no work at all.) Stronger Together ATX is supporting AISD in aligning community partners who serve Austin youth, and making program information available to those who need it. The Community Learning Spaces initiative was announced Friday 9/4 at a Lunch & Learn presentation to over 100 community members and partners who will be coming together to share their programs, resources, and dedication to Austin families to provide the support we truly need in this time. So what does that mean? For Parents & Families Our resource guides are getting a makeover to be able to include all the updated information we've received. Thank you for your patience as our little site has a big job to do! We'll have the first round of guides live by Monday, and they'll continue to get updates as we receive them. Make sure you contact us to be the first to see the updated guides, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more details. For Providers & Programs If you have a program to list, fill out the Community Learning Spaces Interest Form To be included first in the Stronger Together ATX resource guide, and to get more information about Partner Town Halls, fill out our form here We will be organizing sessions to determine what resources are available, how to map them, and the ways we can creatively come together as a team to support our Austin community. We are excited for the opportunity to serve our community, and bring greater support to Austin families as we navigate this changing world, together.

Take Action for Austin Childcare

The situation: City of Austin asked the Child Care Task Force to make some recommendations on how to stabilize the child care sector. The Task Force made a beautiful report and presented it, and...crickets, y'all. There can't be public comment until there is an agenda item, and that needs to happen to keep the ball rolling on getting Austin's child care sector properly funded. Here's a quote from the report: According to a 2018 study by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Texas ranks last out of all states in having a coordinated, integrated early care and education system, layering a crisis on top of a weak and unstable foundation. Ouch. Austin had a childcare crunch before COVID, and with decreased enrollment and increased operating costs, our city's centers and providers are at risk. For the vast majority of families, childcare is a necessary component of being able to work, and we must act to avoid ending up in a situation with even fewer safe, reliable options available (especially affordable ones.) And by we, I mean the City Manager, Mayor, and Council. But also by we, I mean us. As constituents, we need to provide pressure through some good old fashioned letter writing. And lucky for us, the digital age makes that super easy.

Below are all the details from Cathy McHorse at the United Way. She sets it up real pretty for us. And since the goal is getting as many residents as possible to ping City leaders, after you send your own letters... 1) Share this post on social media with the hashtags #FundAustinChildcare and #StrongerTogetherATX 2) Tag at least 3 friends who you know are impacted by Austin's childcare crisis ...and you'll be entered to win a $25 local restaurant gift card! Who doesn't love a gift card?! We'll pick a winner on 9/7, so stretch your thumbs, and let's get it done! Dear Advocates, If we want the City Council to support the rebuilding of the child care sector, they need to hear from their constituents about why quality child care for young children and families is a critical foundation to getting Austin back on track. Here are the details: The City of Austin requested the Child Care Task Force to put forth recommendations for stabilizing and building back a more resilient child care sector.  The report was submitted to the City Council, where it is now on someone’s desk collecting dust. We need your help to ensure the City Council gives this report the attention and deliberation it deserves. We are asking you to email your City Council Members, Mayor Adler and City Manager Cronk to take action on the Child Care Task Forces’ recommendations. Link to volunteer advocates letter draft: For a simple immediate send – individuals can simply fill out their information here to send a letter on their behalf. For a draft of the letter to copy/paste in an email: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1wBYNjcaUQndOsARqm-_IIpMEZrWByG3bVzPOygfHdu4/edit?usp=sharing Link to draft for child care providers/teachers/staff to send copy/personalize & send : https://docs.google.com/document/d/157v8WHKowAEUvaVsFGM7FYfgTi2OX1y5WXKPLdLuU8M/edit?usp=sharing To send letter to all of City Council – paste the letter text here: https://www.austintexas.gov/email/all-council-members Link to Fund Austin Child Care on Facebook – like & share: https://www.facebook.com/Fund-Austin-Child-Care-102803748187240

Local Resources

Updated 8/16/2020 Click here for a full list of resources provided by the City of Austin ConnectATX call line offers guidance and direction to all United Way services (Eng & Sp) FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE RISE Fund information, including organizations distributing assistance to Austin residents. Good Days COVID 19 financial assistance to low-income families with chronic diseases CHILDREN/CHILDCARE Frontline Childcare Search - This is a great tool that is searchable by age and location. Childcare Subsidies - There is currently a waitlist for childcare subsidies COVID Response Course for Providers - Free course that also lists financial resources. VELA Families - Free information & support for children with disabilities. Family Connects - Free in-home visits for newborns by registered nurses. OTHER Vote By Mail - Use this information to request your mail in ballot (read the top paragraph.)

Parent Perspective - Jenni's Story

Well before the pandemic began, even at the beginning of our older son’s school days, it was clear to my husband and me that our kids, much like ourselves, are built to think outside of the box, and would likely be stifled by any educational system that sought to box them in. We had decided that since, in our own experience, public school was pretty great up until about 3rd/4th grade, we would keep them in public school until then and then shift to homeschooling from there. Our now 9 yr old was diagnosed with speech delay before age 3, and has thrived with the support of the special education services he has consistently received from his public school. He has since then been diagnosed as being on-the-spectrum, and in the fall was for the first time in both Special Education and the Gifted and Talented programs. Our now 6 yr old was beginning to show signs of ADHD/dyslexia at the start of the spring semester of this year, and had begun to be evaluated for that right when the school shut down began. We learned early on in his school days that he makes a great line leader, and a terrible caboose! Both of them have specific learning needs that cause standard education to leave them often feeling like fish being asked to climb a tree. The homeschooling we had envisioned -which was to begin next year for our 9 yr old, and in a couple of years for our 6 yr old, is a far cry from the virtual schooling we experienced at the end of spring, and is presumably a far cry from what we expect of virtual education in the fall, as it would’ve included connecting with a group of homeschoolers and a learning focus on each of our childrens’ specific strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Of course, we had no expectation that there would be many similarities, given the complete removal of standard social learning options, but we were still in some way pleased with the transitional quality that pandemic schooling offered us as a family. Both of our boys are social creatures, and neither of them ever really fit in with their classmates in a way that they felt a sense of belonging. It quickly became clear to us in the spring that it was good for them to take a break from not fitting in with a group of their peers, but after nearly six months of zero socialization outside of each other’s company, it has also become clear that they both, like any of us, would very much prefer to be a part of a group of peers with whom they could feel a sense of belonging. It wasn’t until the Thursday before this spring break, that our older son was compelled for the first time to write a note to invite a bus-mate to begin a playdate relationship outside of school, and he is still a bit bummed that he never got the chance to hand that note to his potential friend. It’s not that they don’t have friends, it’s just that the friends they do have are not in their neighborhood or in their classes. Their friends are out-of-town cousins, the kids of our friends, and the kids with whom they have bonded being a part of the community of kids who share 18 magical days together annually at the Kerrville Folk Festival. There, our family has camped from Memorial day through the first week of June since it was just my husband and I, back in 2002, and even before that, when my mother brought me along as a child. Community camping, for 18-24 days, is not so much camping as it is living in tents -intense living, with community support. The tribal life skills acquired in this setting are priceless to human development, and the sense of belonging found there is a catalyst for collaborative creativity which knows no bounds. Those who belong to this community are regularly compelled to convince everyone they know that they, too, belong there, such that it feels like describing a cult, though it is assuredly not. What we find and co-create there is a magic that we all long to sustain year round, and in the absence of that ability, we fill our cups for 18 days, and sip from them sparingly throughout the year until we can return to fill them again. We aspire to envision a world that functions with this magic at its core, to realize a year round lifestyle where the ‘getaway’ is the way, and in being as such, requires no retreat. When the pandemic simultaneously removed from us both the retreat and that from which we needed a retreat, we were left with our four selves and a lot of time. For the most part, thankfully, we have gotten along splendidly in each other’s company, playing family games, playing music together, watching movies together, gardening, cooking, organizing and culling the herd of our material clutter. The boys are so very different in their needs and wants, but have done well to get along with each other, and to take personal space when needed. That said, it will be necessary for their sibling serenity for them to have some measured time apart for their individual developmental needs, at some point in the not-so-distant future. The virtual end of the spring semester, for our family, was a mess, consisting of regularly falling short of learning goals, and doing our best to participate enough for a passing grade. Gently getting the boys used to a reality where so much of what was once stable is now -and will indefinitely remain flipped upside down, included relaxing our expectations of them, and patiently allowing them the space to grieve in their own unique ways: that which is lost, that which never was, that which they don’t yet understand, and that which they may never know. Extending that gentle patience to ourselves as well took a bit more mindfulness, and is still a very conscious effort. The failing on our part to help our kids foster the relationships of geographical convenience that came naturally to us, as latchkey kids of the eighties, wasn’t recognized as tragic for the boys until the lockdown limited them to such in-person interactions. Of course, their newly developed Messenger Kids and Zoom skills have kept them virtually in touch with distant friends and relatives, and for that we are grateful, but having no local family or friends is a tough stone to carry at any age, through these pandemic times. We are thankful to have one good friend who lives only an hour away who is in our Covid bubble, and visits us on most weekends! The summer has been inexplicably both rapid and endless, with no change of scenery, so our backyard has become essential to diversifying our at-home options for entertainment -now including such amenities as a swing, a hammock, a pool with slide, misters, sprinklers, a firepit, and a garden. We have set up the new tent in the living room, and pretended to camp. We built and launched rockets in the large field behind our backyard. We are living our best quarantined life, all things considered. In mid-March, and again in mid-April, we buried feline friends we had known the companionship of since their kittenhood, in 2002. In July we declined to attend the funeral of my husband’s great-grandmother, which was hard to do, but easy to decide on as the best choice for everyone involved. We are currently willing the rest of our elderly loved ones to stay alive at least until such a time as we will have had the opportunity to see them again in person, and when it will again be safe to gather to lay them to rest. The boys have been writing weekly letters to their great grandparents, and that has been a delight for everyone involved! It is pressingly sad to consider that these interactions may be their last connections with these family elders, and the weight of this potential loss is heavy, but that burden has been lightened by their pen pal relationship. Time has been relative and at times irrelevant, with March and April passing like molasses, and May through July more like a hybrid of the tortoise and the hare. Now that August is upon us, we are fully engulfed in the ocean of uncertainty surrounding the fall school semester. In mid-July, I joined the South Austin Quaranteam Facebook group, to get my finger on the pulse of what parents were doing to prepare for pandemic schooling. There I learned about the hub/pod, and how it, among other options, stands out as potentially both a problem and a solution for issues of equity that have always been embedded in public education. Seeing clearly that there is no hope in stopping the exodus of the privileged from their public schools into private pods whose cost is negligible for them, and that the already existing cracks in our systems -through which marginalized populations and lower income families fall, are at great risk of being widened to catch many more families who have until now been, or for the first time now are teetering on the edge of said cracks, I was compelled to get more involved in the discussions around equity in pandemic times. This has resulted in my attendance of many Zoom meetings, and newly formed relationships with a variety of people who are passionate about service to others, and a vision that all students could be provided with similarly advantageous learning situations, with the right amount of coordination, communication, and a specific focus on families whose needs are greater than their means. Through work-trade agreements, we have managed to find a place for each of our boys, in hubs/pods committed to following AISD virtual curriculum, and are hopeful that these arrangements will for the most part work out as intended. It is clear that communication across the lines that divide us is critical to our ability to develop a framework of virtual learning solutions that will provide those with greater needs the resources they lack, while also creating awareness among more privileged families of the unintended consequences of their exodus, thereby hopefully influencing them to include equitable practices in their pandemic plans, which includes staying virtually enrolled in AISD, and holding space in their pods for a member or two who cannot afford to pay, or who doesn’t have time to participate in a trading of duties in a co-op setting. We are committed to sticking with the public school in this virtual pod/hub way, for the foreseeable future, and have put a pin in our plan to shift to homeschooling -partly because it appears that plans are developing in a way where we can get more of what our kids need and less of what they don’t need, while also considering and supporting the system that sustains the needs of many other families with an endless variety of their own needs, and partly because much of the homeschool vision was centered around pre-pandemic possibilities, many of which are now and indefinitely inaccessible. I am also committed to continually participating in the dialogues and movements that are working tirelessly to understand and meet the needs of the underserved and often underrepresented members of our community, and to promoting awareness and communication to those in every different reality that exists side by side in our city, that our actions and outcomes are intrinsically connected, and that we are all better off when we are all better off. When the feedback loop of the shared story generates a mutual understanding of how we can develop community supports and safety nets, and why we must be mindful that our focus on the interests of our own includes a focus on filling the cracks of inequity for others who may have previously been in our blindspots, we will begin to build sustainable and duplicatable community resilience.

Teacher Perspective - David's Story

David's Story One Teacher’s Pod Journey In the early days of July 2020, I had before me what seemed to be a dilemma between a safe choice and a dangerous choice. In any other year of the thirty I’ve had, the line between safety and danger in my career would have been clear: a stable job is safe, and depending on your own ventures for an income is dangerous. Partially, that is still true. It is common knowledge that starting your own business is risky, and quitting a stable job offer to start your own business, more so. Doing so during a pandemic would be downright crazy, for some. But, as with many areas of life, human reactions to the Pandemic of 2020 have recast some formerly safe professions into terrifying ones. Public education has never been a completely safe career. Being around large numbers of people on a daily basis, in a somewhat closed and insular environment certainly has its risks, and at times, its tragedies, brought on where excesses of control and a dearth of empathy have met. However, seldom before have professional educators been asked, pressured, cajoled, and threatened to return to work in an environment so outright likely to result in the spread of a pathogen for which little viable treatment exists, and for which permanent organ damage is a known risk of infection, even though the overwhelming majority of people who contract Covid-19 survive. The Texas Government, Texas Education Agency, and the executive branch of what passes for this country’s leadership have stood together to create a potentially unsafe work environment in public schools. The existence of the coronavirus is not their fault, but their lack of consideration of the multitude of ways in which public schools provide for our economy – skills training, childcare, mental health assistance, nutrition, community – have resulted in their insistence that these institutions reopen, even where experts are warning that doing so is all but guaranteed to accelerate the spread of the pathogen. So much has been said about how public schools are a place that spread is likely, impossible to prevent, and inordinately difficult even to slow down, that I need not add my voice to this opinion further. The TEA does not allow teachers to strike, and threatens them with sanctions up to and including job loss and revocation of certification, should they dare to. This creates a divide-and-conquer mentality, where individuals in the teaching workforce do not have the necessary tools to protest injustice. It also creates a culture where school administrations may set regulations that are unpopular, considered dangerous, and possibly even unfair for teachers, who can do little but complain and hope their voices will be heard. Even complaining opens them up to risk, because it may identify them as potential troublemakers to colleagues and employers. All of this was on my mind as I contemplated the safety procedures laid out for staff in an online town-hall meeting hosted on June 28th for the charter school system I had recently accepted an offer for. The town hall meeting organizers were using Zoom Webinars to conduct the event. There was a Q&A section and I could read other teachers’ questions. There were concerns raised about the safety of reopening schools, but it was clear that the administration had every intention of going ahead no matter what anyone said. The reopening plan authors had claimed to consult with over 50 stakeholders including parents and teachers. However, many of you reading this know that to be consulted can just as often mean to be told something, asked if you agree, and if you say no, ignored thereafter. It is an easy PR exercise to create the illusion of public participation and of group agreement and consent. The principles of group-think are simple. If you want to create a situation where it looks like people agree with you and follow you, just communicate with them subtly that agitation will not be looked kindly upon, praise those who agree, give dissenters little opportunity to speak out, and ‘stack the room’ by making sure that all those who speak first give the impression of agreeing with each other by pre-selecting those whose views and opinions are already known and favorable to yours. In writing all of this, I recognize that school administrators in general have an impossible task laid out in front of them this fall. They know very well that no matter what they decide, people are going to be upset and angry, some will get sick, some will lose their jobs or be fired, some will walk away from their jobs rather than take the risk, and politicians will put pressure on them. It’s a regrettable situation to be in, and I understand that their options are extremely limited. With these statements, I don’t doubt that the majority of school administrators are well-intentioned people who want to help to keep a very necessary social safety net well-funded and staffed with reliable professionals. I don’t believe my statements above represent a majority of administrators, but more likely a significant minority. I gave this some two weeks of thought, and realized that my job offer portended significant risk to myself and my family. I tried to tell myself that I was overthinking it; that I should just get on with my job and not worry, but deep down it didn’t feel right. So, on the first day of my virtual training (an option that was only offered on the Saturday night prior to training on the Monday), I completed my first day of assignments, and gave my notice of resignation. While all this contemplation had been going on, I was also doing research into a newly-emerging model of education based on a much older system: homeschooling pods. Early in July, the TEA released its first major communication about school re-opening plans, and a Facebook group called South Austin Quaranteam exploded in membership. Suddenly, everyone was talking about pods, or small groups of families, some of whom wanted to hire a teacher, others who wanted to share childcare duties between families. It was a creative solution to an urgent dilemma, and in this, I saw a way that I could practice education with less risk to myself and my family. I would be highly unlikely to earn as much money as a charter school salary would pay, but I could also be of service in a way more in accordance with my own goals. I can provide a more holistic, empathic, individualized service to a smaller group of families than I can to a large cohort of public school students. The road to pod formation has been bumpy, but I’m still on it and am in the stage of closing on a current pod and beginning work with them soon. The process has taken about a month to get started, get in contact with people, and find who I wanted to work with. The organization of pods is in a large way do-it-yourself, because there are so many options, and many will not work with a given situation and its constraints. A significant number of the challenges and roadblocks to pod formation are the legal uncertainties – is a pod a childcare business? Is it a micro-school? Is the location certified by the HHS? Do you hire a household employee or an independent contractor? Does household insurance allow so many children in a location? Will the local HOA have a problem hosting school-groups in private residences? What about liability? What about local restrictions on the size of private gatherings? What about all the questions I haven’t written here and the ones I don’t even know to ask? It’s a lot! While home-schooling is neither new nor unprecedented, I believe that what is different is just how many families are now considering alternative options to public and private schools all at once. I think that in this time of uncertainty and rapid change, a movement is forming around a solution. Pods are not without their critics and challenges, and it is true that large numbers of people who can’t afford them are going to be left behind. While I think it is incumbent on all of us to render support to the community at large irrespective of their financial status, I believe that this movement needs to grow and gain public support for it to become revolutionary and to have the ability to change the way public education functions for the better. For this to happen, I think that the movement’s current rate of growth, and the important questions being asked about who is included and who is excluded and why, and the conversations around equity in education, must continue and evolve. Collectively, we are not rendering enough support to vulnerable communities at the moment, but I do think we are making progress and must continue to do so. I am proud to be a part of this movement, and glad I chose the profession of teaching to contribute to positive change in society.

Parent Perspective - Diana's Story

I didn’t know that we had already started a pod pretty early on in the pandemic. In March, while we were all staying home and learning online, my baby’s nanny and a certified teacher, offered to stay on and help with schooling. This is now known as one version of a 'pandemic pod', but at the time, it was saving my sanity and helping me transition out of the career I had built for nearly 14 years to be able to stay home with my children when our nanny moved in June. We ended up looping in a few of my 3rd grader's classmates on zoom calls while Shannon coordinated the 'classroom' time. Having her help was such a blessing, in all the ways. It let my teenager, who would have been required to pick up some childcare slack, focus on nailing the end of her junior year. My husband and I could work. My kids were safe and happy. All things considered, we were doing great. I recall those early days fondly, frolicking in the introverted glory of not having to go anywhere, getting a 'pause button' to be home with my kids, and having my mothering focus on the higher-level management of schedules and toilet paper inventory. I nurtured the seed of Stronger Together ATX. I organized my closets. After she left, things went a little off kilter. I’ve done Summer with kids for 15 years, but this Summer is different. No pool. No vacations. No Grandma's house. No camps. The middle two kids were socially distancing in our front yard with a few friends, but we felt they needed something a little more structured. My teenager was bored to tears, and my toddler was, well, living her best life climbing/spilling/breaking everything in her path. So we started organizing what we called “The Bubble Bunch Summer Club” which was a group of families who agreed to a code of conduct and which included only hanging out together to keep us all as safe as possible while getting the kids some interaction, and us parents some breathing room. My teenager created an outdoor summer camp model, with activities and games and snacks. She took the toddler outside for some parts of it, too. My husband and I could work. Overall, my kids were safe and happy. But we had to have some hard conversations and deal with some deep feelings when both of my #3 daughter's invited friends had risk levels much higher than ours and couldn't participate. A few of the parents ended up getting symptoms, and we needed to shut the camp down and personally quarantine while awaiting test results, which posed logistical challenges. (All tested negative, but it took nearly 2 weeks to get the results in both cases.) My teenager was over it pretty quickly, as she was feeling the stress of her own pandemic experience, and as a senior preparing for her final year of high school in a world she doesn’t recognize with no physical interaction with peers. Her mental health was suffering, and we had to pull the plug. Excluding friends who didn’t have matching risk levels was hard. Shutting down when people got sick was hard. Quitting something some of my children loved when one of them was suffering was hard. But all in all, we were doing okay. Even before this, back in May, (cuz I’m a planner) I had started researching micro-schools and homeschooling, and even took a few training calls with some curriculum companies to see if that was the direction for us. In the interest of trying it on, I had lined up a few families who were considering it, and we began navigating the windy road of the deeply personal conversations and collaborations required. It was reminiscent of buying a house. Making offers, waiting for them to be accepted. Wondering if you said the right thing, and if you were going to blow it. Feeling so invested that when it fell through, it was crushing. That ended up not being the road we took, for many reasons, but at the end of the day it hinged most on everything I knew (and would come to know) about our public school system. With so much of their funding riding on attendance, and with no good reason for us to bail, we decided to support our public schools so they don’t go up in smoke and deprive vulnerable and marginalized communities of the vital resources they offer. Public school needs an overhaul, that’s for sure. It will happen...this pandemic is making sure of it. It just can’t happen so quickly that people fall through the cracks. So we’re staying in. On the logistical side, while I knew I was going to be home with my kids, and while I don’t mind hanging out with a few of their friends in a cohort, I didn’t know if I could handle teaching. I could claim child-centered reasons all day long, but the reality is, it’s about me. Maybe it would be amazing, but could I handle it? I’ve made a lot of progress into full-time mothering, but have I made that much? Enough to take on every aspect of their education AND their mental health AND their physical well-being AND still be able to do all the crap I still need to do? Knowing what I know about kids and consistency, the last thing I want is to put something into effect and then have to change course because I can't hang. Y'all, this has been a series of self-evaluations and audits on every level, and it has been really humbling. I've done a lot of work, but I have a lot to do still. And my focus on myself as a person needs to be in the decision making equation, as much as I want to be perfect and up for every challenge. I have to be realistic about my skills, and my limitations. Homeschooling or micro-schooling may be on the horizon for us in the future, but for now, I personally need someone else to do the teaching with my husband and I on the assist. That way I can follow along and just make sure the boxes are checked, and have the freedom to still be Mom and supplement with stuff I think is important. Like how to get your dishes into the sink instead of on top of your dresser, and how to put dirty clothes in the GD hamper instead of in a trail behind you on the floor. You know, the fundamentals. Not to mention the little detail of where my self-care fits in. If I'm going to be at my best, I have to prioritize my health, too. In thinking about the upcoming school year, I knew the benefits of maximizing cohort relationships, and thought I could potentially add some neighborhood kiddos to what I was going to be doing at home. Why not help a few neighbors since I was going to be home doing it anyway? And with the evidence I had from experiences so far, it seemed like a great idea to set up a few kids in 4th grade, a few kids in K/1, heck, maybe a few toddlers! Maybe I could even make a few bucks to cover my lost income? So I started researching what would be required on the regulations side of things. Cue hours of conversations with Health & Human Services, Austin Health Department, Code Enforcement, Planning and Zoning, my mortgage and insurance companies. It's not so simple to just have a couple of kids in your house after all. This, and science, has definitely informed my decisions as I navigate the issues of public health + pandemic, as some of my previous notions about home-based environments brings all manner of health related questions to light. From what I'm learning, for better or worse, it is likely that our authorities will be reactive versus proactive. This means the decisions will be ours, at least at first, to grapple with. So for us, we’ll be piecing it together. With a high school senior preparing for college, a 4th grader who struggles with authority, a 7-year-old 1st grader who still hasn’t mastered kinder material, and a head-strong toddler who specializes in telling us all how to live our lives, things are going to be interesting. We'll keep the older three in their public schools, we know that for sure. For the middle two, we'll go with virtual all year. We'll have two of our neighbors in a cohort with my 4th grader, and I'll work one-to-one with my 1st grader on bringing her up to speed. I'll balance all of them in our dining room-turned-classroom and our yard-turned-playground. For my oldest, the senior...man, that's tough. How do you do the risk evaluation for your child who has known nothing but going to traditional school, who has been preparing for this her whole life, and who has built such strong relationships outside of her home life that deserve to be nurtured and prioritized - while in the midst of a global pandemic whose threats include everything from minor inconvenience to long term health consequences to drowning in medical debt to DEATH. Ugh. And for the toddler, who's favorite past-time is building precarious towers out of everything that we own, scaling them, and victoriously shouting, "ILANA DO IT!" I just don't know. On one hand, I'm enjoying this phase, and all of its crazy. On the other, it would be wonderful to be able to focus on the older children's needs for longer than 35 seconds before the younger is distracting us away. Childcare is available to us, though a serious, serious stretch financially. We are holding her spot at our beloved preschool, and while the thought of exposing her and our family to greater risks, I also know it would be an incredible place for her to learn and grow, and smash stuff that isn't mine. This pandemic has opened so many doors to both incredible growth and impossible choices. Having to prioritize one child, and figuring out how to make it up to the others. Hearing the call of work, and passions, and self-discovery, and still, despite the world practically stopping...trying to keep all the plates spinning. I’ve been digging in to all the scenarios, researching my buns off, and trying to balance my oft fluctuating obsessions with figuring it all out right now, and letting it unfold organically. I’m trying not to get too sideways on causes and problems (I’m a relentless helper) and letting my own self-care slip (important for more broad and more specific personal health reasons.) Hearing other people’s struggles and victories on their own journeys toward making it work is a blessing, and I am so grateful to all the women who have opened their hearts, both directly and indirectly. It is my belief that moms will save the world. We see the proof of that happening every day, in so many ways. And I believe that if we keep helping each other forward, prioritizing those who need the most support, no matter where we are on this "making it work" journey, we're going to be okay. And if there’s anything I know I can trust, it is my ability, and the ability of all mothers, to rise to occasions and make something pretty magical out of whatever is around. The fancy French word for it is bricolage. And who doesn’t need something fancy right about now? -Diana

A PSA on Abandoning Ship

Diana, here. I'm a mother of four, three of whom are in Austin public schools (the other is a toddler) so I get it. The lack of communication is frustrating. The inability to plan is infuriating. And it's easy to throw in the towel, pay someone else to handle it, and be done with our public school forever (or at least this year.) Clearly this mass exodus wouldn't be happening if the system were working. You wouldn't see educators running to lead pandemic pods, or parents coordinating care with strangers on Facebook, just to get something on the calendar for Fall. And it can be argued that this is just what the school system needs; a shake up. A chance to do better. They NEED to do better. Agreed. But, also... It's important to remember that the resources these schools provide aren't just for your kids. We owe it to our community to step back, and get curious about the big picture. Do we need a better system? Yup. Are we going to have it tomorrow? Nope. Are our Black and Brown families, our special needs children, and other vulnerable youth at risk for losing what may be their sole lifeline through a severe decrease in public school funding? Yes, y'all. So here's my PSA to take a breath, slow our roll, and consider the long term effects of our actions. I mention some events that are now past, but there's more to come. -Diana

Take action for our public schools.

It can be hard to know how to take actions when there's so much going on. So we created this handy infographic for you to use and to share. There's a lot happening to help make schools safe, and keep them funded so they can continue to serve our community, most specifically our vulnerable communities. With constantly changing information, it's hard to keep up. Those working hard behind the scenes to make it work CAN make it work...they just need time. Delaying the start of school will enable local decision makers to continue working with the community, and get more voices to the table. Our schools rely on attendance for funding. With so many un-enrolling or not enrolling, our public schools are at risk for losing valuable resources. This leaves community members who rely on the public school for critical services in the dust, and creates an even less equitable system. Not what we want, right? So whether you're choosing public school or not this year, something called 'hold harmless' is what we're asking for. This will keep funding where it was, instead of where it will be if the COVID-related changes to enrollment are in play. There's a great petition by Just Fund It Texas to check out as well, and of course, remember to register to vote. Who we have in office directly affects how many calls you have to make to yell at them to do the right thing. The whole mail in ballot thing is a little weird, since it says you have to meet some criteria to do it, and COVID-related stuff doesn't count...but the Supreme Court also said you don't have to necessarily prove that you don't have a disability, so, we're saying just go for it and we'll continue to watch and see. Since it's through the mail, getting it early is your best bet. Alright, y'all. Stretch your thumbs, and get it done.

Official Updates & Mandates

This is a continually updated post to provide information and insight on federal, state, and local regulations and guidance. Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention US Department of Education State Texas Education Agency Texas Health & Human Services - Childcare Licensing AgriLife Extension - Childcare Courses Texas Homeschool Coalition Local City of Austin AISD

A Word on Legality and Compliance

Alternative learning options are popping up quickly. Let's not miss some important details as we rush to get things in place. I have been doing a lot of research (like, stay up all night reading statutes, sit on 3 hour phone calls talking with professionals and official entities, a lot) to get some concrete information on what the regulations and requirements are as we are setting up these alternative care options. As I've been working on Stronger Together ATX, and on finding solutions for my own family, I've been torn between going rogue/making it work/damn The Man...and following the rules. My gravitation toward the latter is primarily because, a) I personally don't want to work to create a situation that I then find out I can't actually make happen, b) I don't want The Man to shut down crafty mamas and papas when they realize we're skirting their regulations and not paying them their money, c) I don't want my beloved neighbors to end up in a pickle because of logistical annoyances like not complying with zoning codes, or not realizing they were going to owe self-employment tax. Anywho, I have been compiling a ton of info for Stronger Together ATX, and working on ways we can get State and business support for our alternative learning and care options...BUT I wanted to hustle and post a little PSA. Note: these are based on current requirements and regulations and may be subject to change as our situation changes. There will also be broader discussion of these topics in future articles, interviews, and posts. Numbers There are maximum numbers of kids you can watch outside of your own, and these numbers are dictated through several government entities. Three kids or less seems to be the magic number for the fewest hiccups. 4+ kids opens you up to potential issues with said entities, including zoning, Health & Human Services, etc. Though not impossible to navigate, it's something to consider. If you're considering this as a longer term situation, or want to have more kids...great! Think about beginning the process with HHS for a Registered or Licensed Home. They're doing everything 1:1, though they're working on migrating the process online. Note: any other kids you have, like babies, count in your total numbers. If you're watching kids in your home and any payment, in dollars or services, changes hands...the great nation of Texas politely asks that you file as either a Listed, Registered, or Licensed home with HHS. If you have kids in your home for 4+ hours per day, 3+ days per week, for 3+ weeks...the great nation of Texas politely asks that you file as either a Listed, Registered, or Licensed home with HHS. [There may be loopholes here for school closure care. Working on finding that out.] [FYI: when you apply to be a Listed home with the State, the lowest involvement option, it costs $20 per year, requires no inspection, and you get free background checks. It limits you to 3 children, so if you're thinking of caring for more than that, consider filing as Registered or Licensed. Additionally, if Federal, State or local funding is going to go to support those who cannot pay for alternative care options, it is highly likely that participating options will have to be on file with the State.] Other Legal & Compliance Considerations Check with your insurance company to make sure you have adequate coverage. You may have to prove this coverage in some cases as well. (And it's just a good idea.) Make sure your HOA, community covenant, apartment complex, etc. will allow you to host kids in your home. Remember that most (all?) code compliance issues arise when you're reported by a neighbor. If you're not already offering services, and you're transitioning to watching, educating, supervising, tutoring, teaching a skill...whatever...consider whether you're going to be an employee or formally start a business. Both require paperwork, both have liability associated, and both require you to pay taxes if you make over a certain amount (over $2200 per family in one year for Nanny Tax, and over $400 per year total for a business. And self-employment tax is typically clocked at 30-35%. ) If you start a business, think about whether you'd be better off with an LLC or other business entity to protect your assets. (I'm working on a full interview to get all the best answers for families here.) Even if you're working with families you know and trust, it's a good idea to make sure everyone who will come in contact with your child, including teenage children, have a current background check. (FYI: HHS helps with this when you file with them.) If you're thinking about starting a pod, co-op, or other alternative care option, remember that there are families who cannot afford to buy-in. Grey Areas and Exceptions We are identifying best practices and options for people to create alternative care options that work for their families. Loopholes, fancy fixes, and creative compliance can work...but there is a lot that is still unknown. Here are some thoughts: When children are on-site in a place that is licensed to care for children in other ways (like when your karate academy wants to host tutoring groups) it seems that it has not yet been okayed by the State (though the inspector said he didn't think it would be a problem) just as an FYI for people who are considering that option. There are some hazy exceptions to regulations, like if no money changes hands, very temporary care, or when you're home while your kids are being cared for. I am working to get some clear direction on these. [If you have any specific questions, I'd love to hear them!] Other Considerations & Bigger Conversations If you're thinking about starting a pod, co-op, or other alternative care option, remember that there are families who cannot afford to buy-in. Leaving a spot in your group for an un-paying member, or sponsoring a family to join a group that suits their needs are excellent ways to make options more equitable. [We are working directly with businesses and political leaders to speed funding for these programs, but also consider the social effects of isolating groups of individuals based on income.] Frontline and essential workers can have better luck creating pods together, as those with high risk have had trouble finding groups that suit their needs. Keep pressuring your boss/HR department for support for Austin families. We all have to work together to make working + parenting, actually work. There's a lot more, of course, and I welcome other information, questions, and considerations. I also look forward to continuing all the conversations as we navigate this! #StrongerTogether

Stronger Together ATX

Austin, Texas USA

 

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