Capital Highlights: Dozens of school districts close due to COVID-19 outbreaks

By Gary Borders

Several dozen school districts across the state were forced to close last week due to the omicron variant of COVID-19 sending home students, staff and teachers. Most school districts planned to reopen on Tuesday following the MLK holiday.

“Every superintendent wants to be able to have kids in the classroom and teachers in the classroom … but you get to a certain critical place where you don’t have enough staff available and you have to shut the campus down,” Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said in a Texas Tribune report. “We want to keep kids safe, and you have to have a certain number of adults in the building.”

The Hutto school district, northeast of Austin, will remain closed at least through Wednesday with 200 staff members and 1,680 students reported absent, according to the Austin American-Statesman. In North Texas, more than three dozen school districts closed last week.

The number of new cases of COVID-19 cases in Texas during the past week reached a record high of 506,226, up 22% from the week before, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. The number of new deaths dropped slightly, with 623 reported statewide in the past week. Hospitalizations are on the uptick, with 12,071 lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations reported by the Texas Department of State Health Services. That is up 23% from the previous week.

Empty shelves result of worker shortage

It feels a bit like March 2020 when one goes to the grocery store lately. But this time, it’s not necessarily supply chain woes but a shortage of workers to restock, as the omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps the state. The Dallas Morning News reported shoppers should expect the shortages to continue until the fourth wave of the virus subsides. 

“Either other employees work overtime, or the shift goes empty,” said Gary Huddleston, grocery industry consultant to the Texas Retailers Association. That means groceries are stuck on trailers, in stockrooms or at distribution centers, he added.

One trend since the pandemic began is the marked increase in self-checkout aisles, which now account for nearly a third of all transactions, The Morning News reported.

Voting deadline for primary is approaching

Folks who want to vote in the March 1 Texas primary have to be registered to vote by Jan. 31. Texas Secretary of State John Scott encouraged all eligible Texans to register as they prepare to head to the polls for early voting next month. 

“We want all eligible Texans to participate in all of this year’s upcoming elections, including the primary elections in which voters will choose the candidates to appear on the November 2022 general election ballot,” Scott said. “Don’t wait until the last minute — start the registration process today!”

Texans will pick nominees in the Republican and Democratic primaries for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner, and all 38 members of the U.S. House who represent Texas.

Hottest December in Texas since Sul Ross was governor

Yup, it was hot last month as we hung Christmas lights and decorations.

Texas experienced the warmest December on record since 1889. Throughout the state, temperatures ranged 5 to 9 degrees above average. 

“It’s like the entire state moved south for the winter,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist. “Amarillo got Dallas’s normal temperatures, Dallas got Corpus Christi’s normal temperatures, and Austin got Brownsville’s normal temperatures.

“Not only is it by far the warmest December since the beginning of comprehensive weather records, it will probably also turn out to be the warmest winter month, period,” said Nielsen-Gammon.

The hot weather increased drought conditions throughout the state. More than two-thirds of the state is experiencing drought conditions, with 10% in extreme drought.

“In much of West Texas, it hasn’t rained for over two months,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “The high temperatures increase the rate of evaporation, drying out everything and leading to increased wildfire risk.”

Wildlife vaccine airdrops to combat rabies

The state has resumed airdrops of oral rabies vaccines that have led to the elimination of the domestic dog-coyote and Texas fox rabies virus variants along the Texas border. DSHS began using aircraft on Jan. 12 to airdrop more than 1.17 million baits containing the rabies vaccine in 19 border counties. The project will last two weeks.

“The annual rabies vaccine/bait distribution along the border of Texas and Mexico is critical for the protection of humans, pets and livestock in Texas,” said Dr. Susan Rollo, with DSHS. “The maintenance distribution levels help keep the U.S. free of the canine strain.”

The vaccine baits are small plastic pellets dipped in fish oil and coated with fishmeal crumbles that attract coyotes, gray foxes and other wild carnivores.

Rabies spreads through a bite of an infected animal. Skunks and bats are now the most common source of rabies in Texas.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.

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