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2021 Day Seven EV report: After the weekend

Let’s get right to it: These are the early voting totals for the 2021 election after Sunday:

Mail ballots: 36,517
In person: 19,901

You can see the full Day Seven report here. The “voters by type” breakdown on the last page only goes through Saturday, so I don’t have the most up to date numbers on drive through voting, but it’s a pretty small fraction of the total.

The thing that I noticed when I looked at the numbers was that Saturday was not the biggest day of in person voting, as I had expected it to be. My first thought was that this was an outlier, and that there had to be some reason for it that I would need to speculate on. Turns out, this is the new normal, at least for odd-numbered years. Look at the EV daily totals for 2019, 2017, 2015, and a few elections before then, and you’ll see that Saturday is a good day for turnout, but generally only the second best day. It’s the Friday that leads the pack, and that has been true for odd-numbered years going all the way back to 2009, the last year in which Saturday led the first week’s totals.

Odd years continue to be unlike the even-numbered years in that early voting is a much smaller piece of the pie. I consider the year 2008 to be an inflection point in voter behavior, in that it was the first year of any in which more than half of the total vote was cast before Election Day. That very much persists in even-year races, with nearly 88% of the vote in 2020 being cast early. Looking at previous Presidential years, 2016 followed this year’s pattern of Saturday not being the biggest day of the first week, but in 2012 and 2008 Saturday led the way. 2020 was a different kind of outlier because of the extra week of early voting and the supercharged early energy, but there you can see that there was a significant dropoff on Saturday after that frenzied first week.

So what has happened? Two things, I would guess. One is just that we are all used to voting early, even those of us who persist in waiting until Election Day. And two, because early voting is such a part of the fabric now, it’s more common for people to do it as part of their workday routine. I have voted during my lunch hour most years, and I think that’s pretty common. Whatever the reason, Saturday is not the huge narrative-setting day that it used to be in the EV process.

The rest of this week, if previous patterns hold, will wind up exceeding the first five days. I kind of think that won’t be the case, because of the large number of mail ballots, but we’ll see. In any event, the norm is for the first two to four days of this week to be similar to last week, with Friday being the biggest day of the whole period. I don’t know if that’s what we’ll get this time, but we’ll see. Have you voted yet?

Chron overview of the HISD Trustee elections

There is an election, with candidates, and they all deserve a paragraph and maybe a quote if they’re lucky so you can sort it all out and know how to vote.

Five seats on the Houston ISD Board of Education will be decided Nov. 2, potentially altering the shape of the nine-member board as the district finds a sense of stability with its first permanent superintendent in years but remains under threat of a state takeover.

Sixteen individuals, including the incumbents, are vying for the seats representing Districts 1, 5, 6, 7 and 9.

Several candidates pointed to the potential state takeover and previous board dysfunction as reasons that prompted them to seek office. Meanwhile, several incumbents noted recent progress and momentum with Superintendent Millard House II, who started in July and is working on a strategic plan for the district, as reason they wished to remain in their roles.

The board has changed in the two years since its infighting was laid bare by a video of a meeting for training on how to govern. Within the last five months, for instance, current trustees have unanimously hired House, expressed support for his decision to implement a mask mandate in defiance of a gubernatorial executive order, and approved a bigger-than-expected pay raise for teachers.

You can read the rest, or you can listen to my interviews with the candidates (you can see a full list of them in this post), or go back and read all the Chron endorsements, which give more than one paragraph to at least one of the candidates in each. And with all that, I do hope they have a similar piece about the HCC Trustee races. Even one paragraph is better than nothing.

Superintendent House’s listening tour

I like what he’s been doing.

During his first week as Houston ISD’s superintendent in July, Millard House II said he welcomed feedback from everyone, especially those who long have been left out of important discussions.

He has been receiving a steady stream of feedback on small comment cards and at microphones at a series of town hall meetings.

Residents, employees and parents have complained to the leader of the state’s largest school district about campuses that have been neglected, asked him about how he plans to address issues, both new and old, and have urged him to prioritize children.

Specifically, House has heard about transportation woes exacerbated by a driver shortage, the district’s struggles to appropriately educate students with special needs, the neglect of school libraries and unequal access to resources and funding across the district.

The issues have been brought to House’s attention at a series of town halls he hosted in recent weeks.

The discussions are expected to inform conversations about his first strategic plan for HISD as its superintendent. In a brief interview, House said the gatherings were just the first step in collecting information for the plan, the first draft of which he hopes to have ready in the next couple months.

As speakers lined up at microphones, House cautioned audiences he still was new to the role and did not know everything.

“I am just over the 60-day mark, so I am not going to have answers for you this evening,” he said Wednesday at Booker T. Washington High School. “My purpose in being here is to hear you and then to infuse what you are providing to me as a superintendent and let you hold me accountable when it is all said and done.”

At each meeting, House emphasized the strategic plan will not be his or the Board of Education’s but “our” plan.

From the rest of the story, he seems to be doing a good job hearing what people are telling him and taking action, often getting the person asking the question involved in the solution. Each of the HISD trustees and candidates I’ve interviewed so far has had positive things to say about Superintendent House. It’s early, and whatever plan he comes up with to deal with things like special ed and improving underperforming schools and more equitably distributing HISD resources will surely have its share of critics. But he seems to be going about this the right way, and of course we all want him to succeed. There’s a lot on the line here, and we have no time to lose.

Early voting starts today for the 2021 election

Time to strap on the pads and get yourself out to the polling places:

A sample ballot for Harris County is here – note that it covers all of the local elections, so much of what you see will not be on your specific ballot. Early voting hours will be 7 AM to 7 PM every day except Sunday the 24th (12 PM to 7 PM) and Thursday the 28th, which will be 7 AM to 10 PM with 24-hour voting at select locations. You can see a map of locations here – there are a lot of them – and you can use the “find your nearest polling place” utility here. Note that there are also some drive-through locations. This is because the new voter suppression law does not take effect until next year. Enjoy these things while you still can.

Here’s a list of all my interviews for the cycle:

Elizabeth Santos, HISD District I
Janette Garza Lindner, HISD District I
Matias Kopinsky, HISD District I
Sue Deigaard, HISD District V
Maria Benzon, HISD District V
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, HISD District VI
Greg Degeyter, HISD District VI
Anne Sung, HISD District VII
Bridget Wade, HISD District VII
Dwight Jefferson, HISD District VII
Mac Walker, HISD District VII
Myrna Guidry, HISD District IX
Joshua Rosales, HISD District IX
Adriana Tamez, HCC District 3
Reagan Flowers, HCC District 4
Eva Loredo, HCC District 8
Jharrett Bryantt, HCC District 8

There are also the Constitutional amendments. If you’d like someone to explain them all to you with advice on how to vote, the latest edition of the H-Town Progressive podcast, with guest Andrea Greer, has you covered. This is going to be a low turnout election, you should be in and out in minutes at any location, so get out there and make your voice heard.

More on the Mac Walker ballot name situation

Good move by HISD.

Mac Walker

Houston ISD on Tuesday took responsibility for failing to include the nickname of a trustee candidate when it entered his name in a county elections office portal.

Lee “Mac” Walker, vying for district 7, said last week he learned of the issue when a voter asked whether he was on the ballot. On his application to run, he listed his preferred name — Mac — as the name he wanted identified on the ballot. He has been campaigning under the nickname.

He is listed on the ballot, however, simply as Lee Walker.

“HISD acknowledges and takes responsibility for the error in inputting Mr. Walker’s name into the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office Entity Portal,” district officials said in a statement Tuesday. “Corrective actions and systems in the Office of Board Services have been put into place to ensure that this does not happen again.”

County elections officials said last week the name cannot be changed on the ballot, citing the resources and time required to perform a logic and accuracy test for the entire election before voting begins.

HISD said it will use both Walker’s legal and preferred name in election notices it is required to publish in a newspaper, on the bulletin board used for posting board meeting notices and on its website.

The district said it additionally will publish election notices in the Forward Times, La Voz and Vietnam Post and mail notices of the Nov. 2 election to registered voters in all five of the single-member districts having an election.

See here for the background. Sometimes you make a mistake that can’t be corrected. When that happens, you can at least make amends, and do everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s what HISD has done here, and as someone who wants fair elections, I appreciate it. It’s not the best of all possible situations, but it was the best they could do given what had already happened. That’s all you can ask.

Endorsement watch: Incumbents go one for three

In HISD District VII, the Chron goes with a challenger, in this case Mac Walker.

Mac Walker

In unruly classrooms and school boards alike, you’ve got good kids, you’ve got troublemakers, and then you’ve got the good kids who, for some reason, follow the troublemakers down a path to mischief.

That was Anne Sung in 2018. Amid the HISD board’s dysfunction, this Harvard-educated, former award-winning HISD physics teacher and strong advocate for special education whom we had enthusiastically endorsed for District VII trustee joined colleagues who met secretly with former Superintendent Abe Saavedra, which state officials say violated Texas’ open meetings law. Three days later she voted to swap Saavedra for interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

Sung apologized and said she only wanted Saavedra’s advice on state oversight issues and didn’t know of plans to hire him until moments before she voted for it.

“I didn’t understand what was happening,” she told us. We don’t know what’s worse — premeditating a school board coup or hastily voting for it, without public input, after two minutes’ deliberation.

Incumbents only lose our endorsement when there’s a qualified replacement and luckily there’s Mac Walker.

Listed on ballots as “Lee Walker” due to a district error, he’s a first-time candidate whose motivation truly seems to be raising up the district that raised him.

My interview with Mac Walker is here, with Anne Sung is here, with Bridget Wade is here, and with Dwight Jefferson is here. Clearly, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca got luckier with her opposition than either Anne Sung or Elizabeth Santos did. The editorial also touches on the ballot name situation, so hopefully as many people as possible will be properly informed about that.

Over in the HCC races, the Chron stays with one incumbent, Adriana Tamez in District 3.

Adriana Tamez

In 2013, when the editorial board endorsed Dr. Adriana Tamez for an unexpired term on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees, she represented a breath of fresh air on a board mired with longstanding issues of cronyism and dereliction.

Two years later, when we endorsed her again — for a full term this time — it was because she impressed us with her stalwart commitment to workforce development and unabashed calls for financial accountability in her first term. Today, she’s campaigning on the same platform.

Despite some clear blemishes on her record these past six years, her steady demeanor, deep well of educational, financial and managerial knowledge and focused grasp of the remaining gaps in HCC’s system leads us to recommend District III voters give Adriana Tamez, 57, another term representing southeast Houston.

Tamez can point to concrete achievements she’s helped usher in for HCC. From cementing partnerships with Apple and the PepsiCo Foundation to help students access career opportunities, to expanding dual-credit programs in high schools and working on investing COVID funds in resilient online infrastructure, she has put her nearly three decades of educational experience — as a bilingual teacher, principal, HISD central region superintendent, president and CEO of a charter school — to good use.

My interview with Adriana Tamez is here; I did not interview her opponent. I personally think she’s one of the better board members, and we’re going to need all the help we can get with sigh Dave Wilson coming back.

Over in HCC District 8, it’s another challenger as the Chron goes with Jharrett Bryantt.

Jharrett Bryantt

Since 2009, Eva Loredo has been a stalwart on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees, a former board chair who has provided stability and leadership through a storm of scandals.

There comes a time, though, when a bold challenger with fresh ideas can bring new vision to an entity sorely in need of it.

As such, we recommend Jharett Bryantt to represent this diverse district that stretches from southwest Houston to the Port of Houston.

Bryantt, 32, an assistant superintendent for HISD, is considered something of a rising star in education circles. Earlier this year, he was a finalist for superintendent for a mid-sized Utah school district.

His ambitions may go far beyond the borders of District VIII. Yet one of his areas of expertise — college readiness — dovetails nicely with HCC’s mission, and Bryantt impressed the editorial board with his ideas for improving HCC’s subpar 30 percent graduation rate. His proposal to tie graduation rates to the evaluation of HCC’s chancellor would bring much-needed accountability.

This kind of problem-solving was missing from Loredo’s pitch. Loredo, 69, talks about how she puts students first, but didn’t present a single idea on how to improve HCC’s declining enrollment — a 17 percent drop from 2019 to 2020. Loredo waved it off as part of a nationwide trend, which is true, but trustees should still act urgently to address it.

My interview with Jharrett Bryantt is here and with Eva Loredo is here. This is a legitimately tough choice – I have a lot of respect for Loredo, but Bryantt is an impressive and well-qualified candidate. Listen to the interviews and make up your own mind.

Interview with Joshua Rosales

Joshua Rosales

Every election I get at least one late response or contact from a candidate that I had not interviewed. This year I got a reply to my email to Joshua Rosales after the interview I did with Myrna Guidry had run. Rosales is another PTO dad as a two-term President at Hobby Elementary Dual Language Academy who works in strategic planning, marketing and growth at a global law firm. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, HISD District V
Anne Sung, HISD District VII
Elizabeth Santos, HISD District I
Janette Garza Lindner, HISD District I
Matias Kopinsky, HISD District I
Bridget Wade, HISD District VII
Maria Benzon, HISD District V
Dwight Jefferson, HISD District VII
Mac Walker, HISD District VII
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, HISD District VI
Myrna Guidry, HISD District IX
Greg Degeyter, HISD District VI
Adriana Tamez, HCC District 3
Reagan Flowers, HCC District 4
Eva Loredo, HCC District 8
Jharrett Bryantt, HCC District 8

Endorsement watch: Garza Lindner and Vilaseca

The Chron goes against an incumbent in HISD District I.

Janette Garza Lindner

Trustee Elizabeth Santos, 39, is asking voters to keep her on the board representing Houston ISD District I. They shouldn’t.

Santos’ connection to the district is deep. She grew up attending its schools and taught English there. Her dedication to students shines through when she speaks. As a board member, she helped get raises for teachers and staff as a vocal champion for better pay in the district, whose teachers remain among the region’s lowest paid.

That record speaks in her favor, but it does not overcome her weaknesses as a board member.

An early strike against Santos came in late 2018, when she joined four other trustees to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan in a surprise vote that came after the five had met with a former superintendent whom they then named to replace Lathan. The Texas Education Agency cited that apparent violation of the state’s open meetings law as partial grounds for replacing the whole board.

Santos defends her actions, and claimed in our meeting with her she hadn’t known in advance that Lathan would be fired. But the episode was deeply disruptive and showed poor judgment.

That was an early mistake, but unfortunately Santos has not provided the steady influence and smooth leadership that the school board, with all its recent acrimony, so badly needs. In interviews with us and other outlets recently, she has also struggled to share a cogent vision for how she’ll use a second term to steer the district to further success.

On the other hand, Janette Garza Lindner, 45, is a strong candidate. The mother of two HISD students, she grew up in Brownsville, bilingual in Spanish and English, as an adopted daughter of a widow who left school in the second grade and never learned to read. She graduated from the University of Texas and is an energy industry consultant and project manager. In 2019, she received training as a board fellow of Latinos for Education and serves on the leadership committee of Arts Connect Houston.

My interview with Elizabeth Santos is here, with Janette Garza Lindner is here, and with Matias Kopinsky is here. I noted the issue about the Lathan/Saavedra mess when the Chron endorsed Sue Deigaard, noting that she was not involved in the non-compliant meeting, but I totally forgot to mention that Santos was one of the trustees they might have opposed as a result. I don’t know how much this hurts Santos – she was not the Chron-endorsed candidate in 2017, either – but in a low-turnout affair it may boost Garza Lindner a bit. I figure this is going to a runoff anyway, so we’ll see then if Santos may be in some trouble.

Over in District VI, the Chron did endorse incumbent Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca despite her involvement in that meeting.

Holly Flynn Vilaseca

Overseeing the nation’s seventh-largest public school system does not accommodate learning curves. After Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca was appointed to the board in January 2017, the editorial board endorsed her for a full term , reasoning that nine months is hardly enough time to garner a first impression, let alone demonstrate the breadth of knowledge.

Through five years, three superintendents, an attempted state takeover of the district, Flynn Vilaseca has acquitted herself well on the board as a steady voice and an open mind with a deep fluency on education policy. We recommend District VI voters give her another term representing West Houston.

Flynn Vilaseca, 40, a bilingual former early childhood teacher, wants to bolster the district’s investments in special education and better train campus principals on managing finances to avoid wasteful spending. Her support for wraparound services for special education students is admirable and desperately needed in a district still routinely failing students with learning differences.

Flynn Vilaseca’s role in one of the more shameful chapters in the district’s history is a vulnerability. She was among five trustees who allegedly met in secret with former HISD superintendent Aberlardo Saavedra to coordinate replacing the interim superintendent with him. TEA officials alleged the “walking quorum” violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and led the agency to recommend replacing the entire board.

Flynn Vilaseca claims Saavedra was a long-time mentor and that she arranged the meeting so trustees could discuss “concerns on the board,” but never talked about hiring him. Why, then, did she hand Saavedra a copy of another former superintendent’s contract? According to her 2019 affidavit: “Because he had previously asked for it.”

Even if true, it doesn’t excuse how she was willing to vote days later, ostensibly with only a few minutes notice, without public input, to hire Saavedra.

That said, Flynn Vilaseca seemed sincere in her apology, and pledged to rebuild the public’s trust through transparency. We’re taking another chance on her because her collaborative, moderate voice is needed and because her challengers came up short.

My interview with Flynn Vilaseca is here and with Greg Degeyter is here. Maybe the difference in the Chron’s eyes between Santos and Flynn Vilaseca was the quality of the apology. We’ll see how Anne Sung fares when it’s her turn.

Endorsement watch: Deigaard and Guidry

We are in the last week before early voting begins for the 2021 election, and that means it’s time for Chronicle endorsements. This would be waaaaaaaay late in a more normal year, but as we know there aren’t that many races on the ballot, so now is fine. Two endorsements today, both for incumbents, beginning with Sue Deigaard in District V.

Sue Deigaard

In District V, we recommend voters keep incumbent Sue Deigaard, 52, in the seat representing southwest Houston that she’s held since 2017.

Deigaard, a longtime public education advocate, contends House needs an experienced board to continue addressing massive challenges: according to state accountability ratings, 48 of HISD’s 276 campuses are categorized by state accountability ratings as D or F schools, and more than 95 percent of the students at those schools are children of color.

We believe Deigaard’s deep knowledge of finance and education governance will help implement the district’s forthcoming strategic plan to help schools improve. She wants in a second term to continue improving HISD’s education of students with special needs, and better fund not only the district’s worst-performing schools but also schools that are performing “fine” yet are still under-resourced.

Deigaard, who served a one-year stint in 2020 as board president, supported a performance audit to assess district spending and counts among her accomplishments an expansion of high-quality pre-K and helping the board increase teacher salaries this summer.

Unlike some other trustees seeking re-election, Deigaard didn’t take part in a sloppy spectacle in 2018 in which state regulators contend several trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by surreptitiously meeting with a former HISD superintendent and then days later, voting without public debate to install him as superintendent and oust the interim leader.

My interview with Sue Deigaard is here. I also interviewed Maria Benzon, about whom the Chron said some nice things. That last paragraph above makes me think that Anne Sung and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca may have something to worry about. We’ll know soon enough.

The Chron also recommended Myrna Guidry.

Myrna Guidry

Last December, HISD trustees unanimously appointed Myrna Guidry, an attorney, to replace Wanda Adams, who resigned after being elected as a justice of the peace. Guidry, 56, has proven a steadying influence on a board that’s been plagued by dysfunction and has earned our support for a full term.

Guidry’s argument for reelection is that her first 10 months as a trustee have been devoted to selecting a superintendent and stabilizing after a rough patch. She contends the district, under new leadership of Millard House II, is finally on the right path.

We appreciated her straightforward explanation of why she supported a mask mandate in HISD schools. Guidry explained that she listened to the medical experts and also her constituents who “overwhelmingly” supported mask use. Guidry, like the rest of the board, has more to do to earn the full trust of the community she represents. We believe she can. She is engaged in a range of civic organizations and displays a solid grasp of the inequities facing many in District IX and throughout HISD.

My interview with Myrna Guidry is here. I did eventually hear back from her opponent Joshua Rosales, and will run his interview on Friday. I’m a little surprised that the HISD mask mandate wasn’t a bigger part of these endorsement pieces so far – it’s my understanding that at least Caroline Walter in District V is anti-mask – but I suppose there are plenty of other issues to focus on.

I assume we’ll be getting these throughout the week, plus recommendations for the constitutional amendments (yes, we have those on the ballot as well) and perhaps some other area races that may be on your ballot but are not on mine. Get yourself in that voting frame of mind, because ready or not here it comes.

30 day campaign finance reports: HISD

HISD and HCC elections are the main event this November, and as we approach the start of early voting, we can now look at the 30-day campaign finance reports for the candidates. Here’s what things look like in HISD.

Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I

Sue Deigaard, District V
Maria Benzon, District V
Caroline Walter, District V

Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, District VI
Kendall Baker, District VI
Greg Degeyter, District VI

Anne Sung, District VII
Bridget Wade, District VII
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII

Myrna Guidry, District IX
Gerry Monroe, District IX
Joshua Rosales, District IX


Dist  Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
==========================================================
I     Santos        23,383      7,319        0      18,733
I     Lindner       60,385     12,809        0      44,500
I     Kopinsky       3,492      2,905        0       1,619
V     Deigaard      31,565     15,662        0      42,728
V     Benzon         6,297      2,555        0       3,741
V     Walter        14,792      8,535        0       8,977
VI    Vilaseca      42,632     12,792        0      52,853
VI    Baker          8,370      6,604        0       1,765
VI    Degeyter       1,703      2,887    2,900       1,703
VII   Sung          64,506     18,888        0      61,419
VII   Wade          78,655     58,612    7,000     142,906
VII   Jefferson        712     16,008   17,000           0
VII   Walker        64,776      4,263        0      58,412
IX    Guidry        10,000     11,864    7,500       5,636
IX    Monroe        25,500     15,429   10,000         120
IX    Rosales        1,702      1,818    1,786       1,669

The July reports are here. Incumbents not up for election do not have to file 30 day or 8 day reports, so we’ll next hear from them in January. Not everyone listed here had a July report, so for some people this is all we have.

This is one of those non-city election years, and with all that’s going on nationally and in Austin I don’t know how much people are even aware of these races, let along how much they’re paying attention to them. I live in District I and I do see a fair number of yard signs, for all three candidates. With the pandemic and work from home I’m not out and about much, and as such I have no idea what things might look like in other districts. Are you seeing any signs of activity where you live, if you have an HISD race on your ballot? Please leave a comment and let me know.

I’m a little surprised there isn’t more money in the District V race. Sue Deigaard raised almost the exact same amount as she did last period – I actually went and double checked to make sure I wasn’t looking at the wrong report. I might have expected Maria Benzon, who is being supported by the teachers’ union, to have raised more. I know they’re going to spend some money on her behalf (and on behalf of their other candidates), but I still expected to see some of that in her report. As for Caroline Walter, one of the anti-mask candidates on the ballot, I will note that she got $2,500 from Cal and Hannah McNair. Those of you that haven’t given up on the Texans yet, make of that what you will.

District VII is the race with the most money in it. Bridget Wade had a nice followup to her huge July haul, Anne Sung stepped it up from July, and Mac Walker did well. Dwight Jefferson is the odd one out, but there’s always someone who doesn’t raise much. I’m told that Wade is advertising on TV, and indeed her report shows $30K for “cable/OTT media buy”. Anyone out there seen one of her ads?

In District VI, perennial candidate/loser Kendall Baker got most of his money from himself (he listed a $5000 self-contribution), plus $2000 from Hannah McNair. She sure can pick ’em. Gerry Monroe got $10K from the Conservative Republicans of Harris County, and $10K from Steven Hotze. I sure hope Democrats are paying attention in District IX, because this is Myrna Guidry’s first time on the ballot, and we sure don’t need someone like Gerry Monroe on the Board. He also reported a $50K in kind donation from Aubrey Taylor Communications for “political newspaper advertisements”, which is hilarious and ridiculous on multiple levels. Oh, and a $500 contribution from Hannah McNair.

So that’s the basic landscape at this time. I’ll do a post on the 30 day HCC reports, and will look at the 8 day reports when they come out. As always, let me know what you think.

What’s in a ballot name, 2021 edition

This is unfortunate.

Mac Walker

A candidate for the Houston ISD Board of Education said Friday his name has been printed incorrectly on ballots and county elections officials said it is too late to change the name.

Lee “Mac” Walker, running for the district 7 seat, said the issue came to his attention last weekend when a voter emailed to ask if he was on the ballot. The voter sent him a picture of the ballot, which showed his legal name, Lee Walker, instead of the nickname he has gone by and campaigned under, he said.

Walker’s notarized application shows he wrote he wanted his name to be displayed as Mac Walker on the ballot, according to district records. The application has a notary’s stamp on the bottom. A sample ballot shows his name appears as Lee Walker.

An HISD spokesperson said Friday evening the district was looking into questions from the Chronicle.

“I have gone by Mac since the day I was born,” Walker said. “I am just disappointed.”

[…]

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria told Walker changing the language of the ballot would require a new logic and accuracy test for the entire election, according to an email sent to Walker that he shared with the Chronicle.

That test requires voting more than 15,500 ballots, five days and more than 60 staffers. Post-test requirements include multiple tasks that would be “impossible” to complete with the test before Wednesday, when equipment and materials will be delivered to early voting sites, Longoria wrote in the email.

“In short: at this point in our election preparations, making a correction in even one race would imperil our ability to start early voting for all the 44 entities on the ballot,” Longoria wrote. “After consultation with the Office of Texas Secretary of State, I’ve decided to move forward with our course of action to avoid derailing the entire Nov. 2nd election.”

Walker forwarded me the email correspondence he had with HISD and the Harris County Elections office regarding this snafu. The error is HISD’s, and at this point it appears to be too late to fix it. (Walker said in his email to Isabel Longoria that he “notified your office on Monday” and that he was disheartened to hear her say that “time is the real bottleneck in the matter when it took you four days to respond”.) I have not spoken to anyone at HISD or in the Elections office – I received this correspondence Friday night after I had gone to bed – so I have no further context to offer for any of this. I am in favor of people appearing on the ballot by their preferred name (within reason), and by any reasonable standard, “Mac Walker” is the name that should be on this ballot. It’s unfortunate that it likely will not happen in this race. Given that, the best I can do is to let you know the situation. Hope this helps.

Interview with Greg Degeyter

Greg Degeyter

There are two challengers running in HISD District VI, and today I present to you an interview with one of them, Greg Degeyter. Degeyter is an attorney who specializes in helping people get disability benefits, after having been a meteorlogist and working for the Environmental Protection Service; he made a career change after suffering an injury in an automobile crash. He has three children with special needs, which he credits as the catalyst to get more involved in politics. Here’s our interview:

(The other candidate in District VI is perennial candidate Kendall Baker. I did not reach out to him.)

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, District VI
Myrna Guidry, District IX

Interview with Myrna Guidry

Myrna Guidry

There’s one incumbent on the HISD Board of Trustees that you may be less familiar with, and that’s District IX incumbent Myrna Guidry, who was appointed to the Board in December of 2020 to replace Wanda Adams, who had been elected Justice of the Peace that November. Guidry is an attorney focusing on family and probate law and the parent of a recent HISD graduate. She is also a mediator and continues to serve as an adjunct law professor of mediation at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Here’s our conversation:

(Note: I did not reach out to candidate Gerry Monroe.)

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, District VI

Interview with Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca

Holly Flynn Vilaseca

I will be finishing off interviews with HISD trustees this week, and then moving into the HCC races next week. We have two incumbents and one challenger to meet, and we begin with Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, the incumbent in District VI. Appointed to fill out an unexpired term in January 2017, she was elected to a full term that November, and has served on the Audit and Special Education committees. A native of Ohio before moving to Houston and attending HISD schools, she is the daughter of Colombian immigrants and was a bilingual pre-k and early childhood teacher for six years, and is now Chief Relationship Officer at thinkLaw, an organization that uses real-life legal cases to teach critical-thinking skills. The interview I did with her in 2017 is here, and the interview I did with her for this election is below:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII

COVID continues to run amuck at the schools

This is our reality.

Students in Texas public schools are facing another year upturned by COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, mask mandates are inconsistent and children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated against the virus.

Less than two months into this school year, the number of reported coronavirus cases among students has surpassed the total from the entire 2020-21 school year. Schools are prohibited from taking precautions such as requiring masks, though some are fighting the governor’s order banning mask mandates. Far more students are on campus, since most districts do not have a remote learning option.

[…]

State data on school cases is incomplete and likely an undercount. TEA suppresses some districts’ case counts to protect student privacy, and not all districts report student and staff cases to the state, despite agency guidance requiring otherwise. The agency also retroactively updates its data from previous weeks as more districts report cases.

Some large districts, such as Houston and Dallas, have not consistently reported cases to the state since TEA started tracking COVID-19 data on Aug. 2 for this school year. Many districts publish a COVID-19 dashboard that shows cases, and TEA recommends families check for the latest data there.

Entire districts, including Angleton and Lumberton, have closed temporarily without reporting cases to the state. These districts don’t necessarily report their closures, either, since they are not required to do so. TEA informally tracks closures based on media and district reports, said Frank Ward, an agency spokesperson.

I don’t quite understand the embedded table that this story has about school districts with the most reported COVID cases, as the numbers they report for HISD don’t match up with the ones on the HISD site. I guess they’re showing active cases and not cumulative ones, but it doesn’t sound like that from their description. In any event, the point is there’s a lot of COVID in the schools, and the schools have few options right now to mitigate it other than defying Greg Abbott’s mask mandate ban and hoping for the best in the courts. The forthcoming EUA for the Pfizer shot for kids will help eventually, though that will take time as even pro-vaxx parents may wait a bit before giving it to their kids.. And that is our reality.

Interview with Mac Walker

Mac Walker

One more interview this week, still in District VII, with Mac Walker. Walker is a native Houstonian and graduate of Sharpstown High School as the first member of his family to reach that milestone. He went on to get an engineering degree from Duke and an MBA from UT, and is now the owner of a wellness business. He has mentored at-risk high school students at Wisdom High School (Lee) as part of an organization called Mentors of Hope, for which he served on the board, and he has served on the PTO of his kids’ schools, which I as a fellow PTA dad respect. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V
Dwight Jefferson, District VII

Interview with Dwight Jefferson

Dwight Jefferson

Back again to District VII and a visit with Dwight Jefferson, whom we met in 2015 when he ran for Houston City Controller. Jefferson is a graduate of UT Law School after having been co-captain of the football team as an undergrad. He’s a former District Court judge and Metro trustee, he has served on the HISD H.E.A.R Committee and as Chair of the American Diabetes Association, Houston Chapter, and lobbied the Legislature on behalf of HISD during the 2019 session. We had a lot to talk about.

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V

Interview with Maria Benzon

Maria Benzon

We move over to District V today for a conversation with Dr. Maria Benzon. Benzon is a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School who got bachelors and masters degrees at UT and a PhD in Educational Psychology at UH. She has been a math teacher and department chair in HISD and an assistant principal at the Southwest Schools, and has been an education researcher and teacher to teachers at UH and elsewhere. Our interview is below.

(Note: There’s a third candidate in this race, Caroline Walter, who has no online presence that I could see and is an anti-masker, as this report from a recent candidate forum makes clear. I did not try to find her for an interview.)

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII

Interview with Bridget Wade

Bridget Wade

I ran interviews two weeks ago with incumbent HISD trustees Sue Deigaard and Anne Sung. This week I will be running interviews with three of the candidates who are running against them – my schedule for publishing interviews is necessarily dependent on my ability to get them scheduled. Today we visit the District VII race with Bridget Wade, who came onto my radar in a big way back in July when I noticed her monster fundraising haul. Wade is a native Houstonian and graduate of Briargrove Elementary and Paul Revere Middle Schools. She is a past President of the Briargrove PTO and Episcopal High School trustee, and has served on numerous other boards and committees. Here’s our interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I

Looking for the missing students

More important than usual this year.

The state’s largest school district recorded a first-day enrollment of 172,091 students, a significant decrease compared with previous years. It is not uncommon for enrollment to lag, even to its lowest point of the year, in August.

While numbers reported later in the fall typically provide a more accurate depiction of a district’s student body, HISD’s enrollment in recent weeks has slowly risen to about 190,000 as of last week, according to House, but remains lower than the nearly 200,000 who finished last school year.

Still, [HISD Superintendent Millard House II] said before embarking on the home visits Saturday, the district is on pace to reach its target of about 197,000 students.

“Student reengagement efforts are ongoing, and it is our goal to facilitate outreach to the families of all students who have left HISD,” he said. “We are not here to judge, we are here to support. That is very important for us to understand. So, as we knock on doors this morning, we are here to ensure that we get these babies back in classrooms so that they can get the kind of support they need.”

HISD is not alone.

The Texas Education Agency registered a decrease last year of statewide enrollment from the previous year for the first time since it began collecting enrollment data.

There were roughly 5.37 million students enrolled in schools across Texas last year, a 2.2 percent decrease — about 122,354 students — from the prior year, agency officials wrote in a June report.

[…]

Such problems — having an outdated address or phone number as a student’s contact information — are par for the course for Burl Jones, a student outreach worker at HISD, who said he goes on “wild goose chases all the time” as he tries to get students back into classrooms.

COVID-19 made it worse. Some students did not have access to the internet early on, and some parents remain skeptical of vaccines or health protocols.

“Sometimes, people will be there, they won’t answer the door. Or you have an address on file for them and they don’t actually live there,” Jones said. “That is what it is out there, man, that is the real world. … I do what it takes to find them. It’s like, I am an investigator. I don’t give up. I get a joy out of recovering these kids.”

HISD also has held several phone banking sessions, including in partnership with Houston Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest employees union.

I’m sure there are more kids homeschooling this year than usual, but for sure there are kids who are simply missing from the rolls. We know there were many kids last year during remote schooling who never logged on, for whatever the reason. Kids have already lost a lot of ground, so it’s extra important to make sure no one gets left behind. I sure hope they can find everyone.

Interview with Matias Kopinsky

Matias Kopinsky

We wrap up our tour of HISD District I this week with Matias Kopinsky. Kopinsky is the son of Argentine immigrants who grew up speaking Spanish. He attended Herod Elementary, Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School, and Bellaire High School, and got a BS in petroleum engineering from UT. The HISD Board as currently constituted is all female, so if elected he would change that. That wasn’t one of the things we talked about, I just thought about it while writing this intro. Here’s what we did talk about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I

Interview with Janette Garza Lindner

Janette Garza Lindner

We continue with HISD District I, and today’s candidate is Janette Garza Lindner. A native of Brownsville, Garza Lindner has lived in Houston for 20 years. She is a UT graduate with a degree in Management Information Systems, and has served as a Latinos for Education board fellow and as the main community representative on the Arts Connect Houston leadership committee. I discovered her candidacy when doing my post on the July HISD finance reports; she was filed as a candidate but had not done any fundraising then. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I

Interview with Elizabeth Santos

Elizabeth Santos

This week we will meet the three candidates in HISD District I, which happens to be my district. Elizabeth Santos is the incumbent, having been elected in 2017 after Anna Eastman decided to not run again. Santos is a lifelong resident in the district, and spent ten years teaching in HISD, at Sam Houston and Northside, while getting a BA in English Literature from UH-Downtown. You can listen to the interview I did with her in 2017 here – it was one of the first I did following Hurricane Harvey, which as you can imagine had an effect on the questions I was asking. A lot has happened since then, and you can hear about some of those things in this interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII

Interview with Anne Sung

Anne Sung

We continue with HISD candidate interviews, moving over to District VII for a visit with incumbent Anne Sung. I almost wrote “first-term incumbent”, but Sung won a special election in 2016 to succeed Harvin Moore, and was then re-elected for a full term in 2017, so technically she’s in her second term and that makes her the longest-serving incumbent on the Board. Sung is a graduate of HISD schools and Harvard University, and taught for several years at HISD and in the Rio Grande Valley via Teach for America. She serves on the boards of the SPARK Park Program, the Texas Association of School Boards, and OCA-Greater Houston, and is a former Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Project GRAD Houston. The interview I did with her in 2016 is here, and the interview I did with her this year is here:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V

Interview with Sue Deigaard

Sue Deigaard

Hey, remember how there are elections this fall? It’s true! Not for the city of Houston, but for HISD and HCC, and you know what that means – candidate interviews. As you may imagine, there are a few topics of interest this year. We begin our quest with District V incumbent Trustee Sue Deigaard, elected in 2017 to succeed Mike Lunceford. Deigaard is a longtime education advocate, having served as as a parent representative on HISD’s District Advisory Committee, a board member on the Houston Center for Literacy, and a founding board member of the Braeswood Super Neighborhood Council prior to her election. She served as Board president in 2020, and is a graduate of Rice University, where she was the first member of her family to attend college. My interview with her from 2017 is here; as noted, I knew her at Rice as we were both members of the MOB. Here’s the interview:

I expect to have interviews with HISD candidates over the next four weeks, then HCC interviews after that. As always, please let me know what you think.

A bit of good news in the wastewater

I’ll take it where I can get it.

Community spread of coronavirus is on the decline from its recent summertime high, but experts warn that Labor Day gatherings and kids’ return to classrooms could bring a rash of new infections in the coming weeks.

The latest samples of Houston’s wastewater — a highly sensitive method for tracking coronavirus — show diminishing traces of the virus across the region, said Loren Hopkins, the Houston Health Department’s chief environmental science officer. The results indicate a slight drop in person-to-person spread.

“The positivity rates are still alarmingly high, the wastewater rates are still alarmingly high, but it may be trending down,” Hopkins said Wednesday.

The decline could be short-lived.

The holiday weekend and the start of school, which spurred record infections among children, will likely keep the Houston area in “plateau mode” for the foreseeable future, said Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center.

On Tuesday, the Texas Medical Center reported that the rate of transmission across the Houston area was 0.87; the average for the previous week was 0.99. Both figures landing below 1.0 is a good sign; any number above 1.0 means the virus is spreading through the community.

Still, McKeon urged caution. Tuesday’s low daily transmission rate of 0.87 could be artificially deflated due to low testing rates, he said, which commonly occur over holiday weekends.

“We are just coming out of the Labor Day weekend and we typically do not see the impact of holidays for one to two weeks,” McKeon said.

[…]

Houston’s coronavirus hospitalizations slowed by 2.3 percent in the past week, but remained only slightly lower than August’s record peak. As of Tuesday, 3,370 people were in area hospitals for COVID-19, down from the record high of 3,500 on Aug. 24, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Ballooning school transmissions are another concern, experts said, especially in districts that do not have mask mandates. Student infections are rapidly rising across the state, with the total number of positive cases among public school students surging by 90 percent just a few weeks into the new school year.

“We need mask mandates to protect our school children from getting infected and bringing it home to Mom and Dad,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at Texas Medical Center’s School of Public Health.

The wastewater had documented to surge, and it will be the leading indicator when there is a real decline. I hope people were cautious over the Labor Day weekend, but we’ll know soon enough what if any effect that had. As for mask mandates in the schools, it seems to be working pretty well for HISD. I keep saying, none of this is a mystery, we know what we need to do, we just have to do it.

We really need a mask mandate at every school district

Or we can just accept a lot more hospitalized kids. Easy choice if you ask me.

The number of Texas children hospitalized with COVID-19 hit an all-time high over the weekend, with 345 on Saturday and 307 on Sunday, the highest two-day stretch recorded during the pandemic, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The data follows a national trend of rising pediatric COVID hospitalization rates. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday shows the highest rate of increase among teenagers and children 0-4 years old. The study also found unvaccinated adolescents were 10 times more likely to need hospitalization compared to their vaccinated peers.

Children under 12 are ineligible for any of the available COVID-19 vaccines.

School reopenings and “pandemic fatigue” are two primary reasons for the statewide increase, said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas and author of the popular blog “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

“The more that kids interact with each other, the more this is going to transmit,” she said, adding, “We really need to step up our mask game. Parents really need to invest in good masks to wear for their school.”

She urged parents to buy N95 masks for their children and to “lead by example” with their own mask-wearing habits.

Multiple studies have shown masks help reduce COVID transmission indoors. The CDC study also recommends universal masking in schools, where cases are soaring in Texas. The state health department on Aug. 29 recorded 51,904 COVID cases among Texas students since the 2021-22 school year began.

I mean, we’re a year and a half into this pandemic. We do know all this stuff already. I get that some people are tired of doing pandemic things, but 1) if said person is not vaccinated then they can just STFU right now, as this is all their fault, and 2) as the kids say, we may be done with the pandemic but it’s not done with us.

Thankfully, HISD is doing it right.

While outbreaks have forced some districts to close schools already, Houston ISD has fared comparatively well two weeks into its school year.

By midday Friday, the state’s largest district of nearly 200,000 students had confirmed 1,085 active cases among students and staffers, according to its dashboard.

The most important mitigation strategy the district could implement is one it already has in place — ensuring people wear masks, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday.

“As we look at the data in our schools, yes we have COVID cases,” House said during an agenda review meeting. “But if we look at the percentage of spread in our schools in comparison to the number of kids that we have, it looks — it does not look bad in comparison to some of the other schools that don’t have mandates in place.”

Health professionals agree the mask mandate may be helping HISD reduce the risk transmission inside its classrooms, even as kids younger than 12 remain ineligible to be inoculated and the delta variant continues to spread mostly unchecked in the Houston area.

“I attribute it to that,” said Dr. Quianta Moore, Huffington Fellow in child health policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “There are some schools that the parents and the community are wearing masks and they are also having low transmission.”

As I said before, I don’t want to get overconfident, but again, we know that masking helps. Given the risks, the current legal status, and the complete lack of consequences for defiance, I can’t think of any good reason for a school district to not have a mask mandate in place. We’re either trying or we’ve given up.

A rough start to the school year

For some districts more than others.

Angleton and Livingston ISDs announced this week they temporarily were shutting down their schools, the first Houston-area districts to halt all in-person learning amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, but possibly not the last.

With reported cases increasing rapidly since schools in the Houston region reopened last month, some districts are discussing contingency plans for closing campuses and, in some cases, shifting to online learning.

Already a handful of districts temporarily have shuttered individual classrooms or entire schools, prompted by the number of student infections, the number of kids having to quarantine or staff shortages caused by illness or quarantines.

With little guidance from the Texas Education Agency on metrics and thresholds that should trigger closures, school districts are making those calls on their own or relying on local health authorities. Among the factors being considered are rates of infection, teacher staffing — including the availability of substitutes — and student absences.

According to TEA, many districts have built time into their calendars in “anticipation that a temporary shutdown due to COVID” may be necessary.

“The agency has been coordinating with (districts) experiencing the need to close to ensure they have the information necessary to plan, adjust, and prepare to provide the required minimum of 75,600 operational minutes,” the agency said in an emailed statement.

[…]

Elsewhere in the state, Connally ISD in central Texas closed its five campuses near Waco for the week after two teachers died of COVID, as have a handful of east Texas districts and others in rural areas of the state.

Area districts that are mandating the use of face masks by students and staff, including Houston, Spring and Texas City ISDs, said they are not in talks about shutting down schools and are focusing on keeping in-person learning safe.

“We do not anticipate school closures,” reads Houston ISD’s COVID protocols. “However, should conditions change and an HISD school or building need to close, the determination will be made on a case-by-case basis by the superintendent in consultation with HISD Health and Medical Services and the Houston Health Department.”

Well, HISD still has a mask mandate, and I figure that has to be helping. I don’t want to get obnoxious about it since the Delta variant is terrible and pride goeth before a fall, but I’ll put better odds on HISD than on a district that isn’t taking the minimal steps to protect its students and teachers and staffers. According to the Trib, “At least 45 small school districts across Texas have been forced to temporarily stop offering in-person classes as a result of COVID-19 cases in the first few weeks of the new school year”. I’m willing to bet none of them had a mask mandate; the story didn’t specify but it did say at the end that at least one of these small districts is thinking about it in defiance of Abbott. The total number of student COVID cases that have been reported is up 90% over the previous week, which needless to say is a trend that needs to stop quickly or else. I don’t know how long we can go on like this, but I do know that whatever happens it’s on Greg Abbott. Keep all of these folks in your thoughts.

What about City Council and redistricting?

Of interest:

The embedded image is a table of population figures for Houston City Council by district, broken down by race and ethnicity. The “target” population for each district, which is to say basically the total city population as enumerated by the Census (2,304,580) divided by 11. That number is 209,507, and as former County Clerk numbers guy Hector DeLeon observes, it’s the mostly Black and Latino districts that would need people added to them to meet that.

Note that the red negative numbers are in relation to the target population. If you want to know how each district has changed since 2011, when City Council was expanded to 11 members, part of a court settlement from some years before, you can review the actual population totals that the districts had at that time here. There’s some variation in there, with a range of 180K to 199K and a target of 190,859. A little variation, up to about five percent in either direction, is tolerated to accommodate other factors like communities of interest.

With that, you can see that districts H and I actually lost a little bit of population, while J is basically the same. To the extent that there was an undercount in Houston, due to COVID and Trump malfeasance and whatever else, those are the districts where you would expect it to manifest. District C grew by about 46K, districts D and G by about 40K each.

The big question is whether or not City Council is required to redistrict. It’s my understanding that the charter mandates a review of population figures to ensure that the districts are not “materially unbalanced”. As you may suspect from that kind of wording, there’s some discretion in there. There’s also some time, since the next city elections are in 2023. HISD has elections in 2021, but their filing deadline has already passed, and there wouldn’t be time to review and redraw their boundaries for this November in any event. So, it’s 2023 for them as well.

More injunctions against the mask mandate bans

Keep ’em coming.

Concluding that Gov. Greg Abbott exceeded his authority by banning mask mandates in Texas, an Austin judge ruled Friday that school districts in Travis County can enforce face coverings as a COVID-19 precaution.

State District Judge Catherine Mauzy’s order also applied to 19 school districts that represent about 1 million students — including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and Houston — as well as Austin Community College, which also sued Abbott.

However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly appealed, automatically blocking enforcement of Mauzy’s temporary injunction — though the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals can be asked to reinstate the judge’s order while Paxton’s challenge proceeds.

In her ruling, Mauzy concluded Abbott’s ban on mandatory masks — contained in a July 29 executive order — was unlawful and exceeded his authority in violation of the Texas Constitution.

Mauzy found that the school officials and parents who challenged Abbott’s order made “a sufficient showing” to establish that Abbott was not authorized to declare “by executive fiat” that school districts are prohibited from requiring masks to be worn.

Without court intervention, Mauzy added, Abbott’s ban leaves school officials unable to mandate masks to control the spread of COVID-19, “which threatens to overwhelm public schools and could result in more extreme measures such as the school closures that have already begun in several Texas school districts.”

In a separate ruling, Mauzy also granted an injunction sought by Harris County to allow a mask mandate to continue for Houston-area school districts, said Christian Menefee, county attorney.

“Gov. Abbott is misusing the Texas Disaster Act to make this pandemic worse,” Menefee said, calling the ruling an important step in reining in the governor.

But in a third challenge, the judge declined to issue a statewide injunction, requested by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, that would have allowed mask mandates in all Texas school districts. Mauzy’s one-page order gave no reason for the denial.

It’s hard to keep track of all of these, but see here for the original ruling in the Harris County case, and here for the original ruling in the SCCA case; the filing of their lawsuit was noted here. I have so many of these posts, some of which combine stories from multiple lawsuits, so I can’t find (and may not have) a post about the original Austin lawsuit, but the famous SCOTx demurral of the emergency request by Paxton and Abbott to block a TRO was related to the Austin/Travis County lawsuit. I note that the Harris County case and the SCCA case were originally in Judge Jan Soifer’s courtroom, so I am assuming that a bunch of similar lawsuits were combined into one and that’s how they all wound up before Judge Mauzy.

The injunction may be on hold because of the appeal (there’s some fancy legal term for this that I have encountered before but forgotten by now), but the plaintiffs can and surely will ask for it to be reinstated by the Third Court of Appeals. That will force another reckoning with the Supreme Court, thanks to the recent order in the Bexar County case. In a sense all of this is just sound and fury since Abbott and Paxton can’t enforce the mask mandate bans anyway, but the ritual must be observed. I feel like I should get a CLE credit for all of this blogging. HISD Superintendent Millard House’s statement about the ruling is here, and KXAN and the Trib have more.

HISD starts its year

Good luck, kids. You too, parents.

For the second straight year, Houston ISD is set to welcome back nearly 200,000 students in the midst of a pandemic.

The similarities between last year and Monday’s reopening end there, however.

HISD entered the 2020-21 school year with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Harris County on a downward slope. Nonetheless, the district began the year online and did not open its campuses until October. Nearly half its students finished the school year learning remotely even as case numbers had waned toward the end. Those who returned to campus remained masked up, socially distanced, and in some cases, behind plexiglass.

This year, the district is plunging right in, offering limited remote learning to vulnerable kids, requiring face masks but relaxing social distancing requirements while the number of COVID cases and hospitalizations are rising higher than ever, driven by the highly contagious delta variant and a lagging vaccination rate in Harris County.

Many of those cases involve young people, including some under 12 unable to be vaccinated. Eighteen percent of all the new cases in the Texas Medical Center this month have been children, President and CEO Bill McKeon said.

A look at COVID numbers in the surrounding districts, most of which have been open for less than two weeks, provides a glimpse into what the largest school district in the state could face when it opens its doors Monday.

A week and a half into the school year, Conroe ISD reported 1,487 students and 143 employees were isolated with symptomatic or test-positive COVID-19. Fort Bend ISD disclosed 536 total cases among students and staff. At Spring ISD, officials had 139 active student cases on the seventh day back.

On Friday, HISD had 157 active cases. The district finished last year with 2,037 total cases among students and another 1,600 among staff, according to state figures.

“We are really shoveling water out of the boat as we go because the cases are going up. The cases are jumping into the boat while we are shoveling them out of the boat,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II said of the region’s surge. “We are doing the best job we can, being as strategic as we can — keeping students and staff first in every decision that we make.”

It is what it is at this point. I forget where I saw it, but I came across the observation that HISD and other school districts were planning over the summer to emphasize making up for lost ground this year, and instead they’re having to deal with another form of the pandemic. The school year starts as the case rate is as high as it’s been since February, young kids still can’t be vaccinated, and the district is fighting to be able to enforce its mask mandate. I’m happy with the way Superintendent House has handled this so far, and I’m cautiously hopeful that we can get through the worst of this and be in a good place when we do. If you have schoolkids like I do, good luck and stay safe.

The mask rebellion

Sweet, sweet music to the ears.

The local mask rebellion, coupled with the fresh threat of legal action from President Joe Biden’s administration, poses the most serious challenge yet to [Gov. Greg] Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded in unprecedented ways that have drawn intense criticism both from Democrats and from some conservatives.

[…]

Many school boards and superintendents are stuck between conflicting requirements from the governor and their local health departments, while others feel that masks are essential and that they have the authority to control their own schools, regardless of the governor’s wishes.

“I don’t think the governor has an MD next to his name,” said Conrado Garcia, superintendent of West Oso Independent School District in Corpus Christi. “We’re just trying to help our kids, and maybe what’s missing is some of that kind of thinking.”

West Oso is one of 58 school districts deemed “noncompliant” with Abbott’s order by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is publishing a list of the rogue government entities.

At last count, the list also included three charter school groups, one city and eight counties — Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Nueces and Travis — for a total of 70 entities. Paxton, who is also suing to overturn some of the local mandates, encouraged the public to notify his office of any “violator” that was not included on the list.

Garcia said he hopes Abbott will come around on the local mask mandates.

“Our intention is not to fight the governor, our intentions are that he will realize that there’s so many parents, and the list is growing of the number of school districts that are passing more and more resolutions,” Garcia said. “So I think eventually, somewhere, somehow, common sense dictates to me that if you’re hearing from that many people, I hope that he will compromise and let us continue with our work.”

The cases pose a new legal test for Abbott, whose emergency orders withstood early challenges from the right, filed by conservative groups that argued against business closures and the governor’s own mask mandate.

The Texas Supreme Court decided last year that it didn’t have standing to take up those cases, though Justice John Devine nonetheless issued an opinion in which he critiqued a portion of state law that allows the governor to suspend certain laws and rules during emergencies.

“I find it difficult to square this statute, and the orders made under it, with the Texas Constitution,” Devine wrote, noting that only the Legislature — not the judiciary or executive branches — has constitutional power to suspend laws.

In the latest mask challenges, local officials are citing the same portion of state law, but with the opposite intent: to stop Abbott from blocking local action aimed at blunting the spread of COVID. In cases involving San Antonio’s and Dallas’ mask mandates, local officials have argued that Abbott may suspend only local orders that would “in any way prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”

Ron Beal, an attorney and former administrative law professor at Baylor University, sided with the local officials in an amicus brief submitted to the state Supreme Court on Monday.

“It is wholly inconsistent with the legislative intent for the governor to consciously and knowingly not meet or prevent the dangers, but to enhance them,” Beal said. “There is simply no language in the statute that empowers the governor to give citizens permission to prolong the disaster. It is thereby void.”

[Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University], said the case raises difficult constitutional questions for the conservative jurists on the court.

“That cuts a number of ways in this case, both for and against the governor, because he’s acting in a way that many conservatives believe is reinforcing individual rights to choice, choice about wearing masks specifically,” Carpenter said. “But I think the court certainly doesn’t want to issue an opinion that says the governor’s the commander-in-chief and he can do what he wants, and not qualify that opinion a lot.”

[…]

Paris ISD, in Northeast Texas, has taken a novel approach to its own mask mandate. While other districts have argued that health data or conflicting local requirements required them to ignore Abbott’s order, Paris ISD’s board simply amended its dress code to include a mask.

The lawyer for the district, Dennis Eichelbaum, argues that so long as the state’s education law remains in place, school districts have the exclusive right to govern themselves. Unless Abbott decides to use his emergency powers to suspend that law, Eichelbaum argues, school districts can institute mask mandates.

“We’ve always had dress codes. It’s very common in Texas. And this is no different, really, than saying we’re requiring our students to wear shoes,” he said. “I can’t explain why other law firms weren’t as creative, but it seems pretty simple to me.”

Eichelbaum argued that Abbott’s executive order is vague and inconsistently enforced, pointing to requirements that students wear face masks during welding class or that baseball catchers and football players wear face protection. Amending a dress code to include masks to protect against COVID is no different, Eichelbaum said.

Obviously, I am delighted by the resistance to Abbott’s shameful demagoguery on this issue. Abbott, who has made a career out of defying federal laws and directives he doesn’t like, deserves no sympathy for any of this. I don’t know what the Supreme Court will do, though their refusal to just call an end to all the litigation is moderately heartening, and I appreciate the legal analysis in this story. There’s at least a chance that common sense can prevail, and that’s more than we’ve had around here in awhile.

I will say, it’s been this kind of resistance to Abbott’s anti-mask mandate, which as noted has come from some red areas as well as the cities, that makes me give some credence to that Spectrum/Ipsos poll. Abbott may only care about the most fervid of Republican primary voters, but mayors and school boards have to answer to a broader electorate, and some of them will be facing that music this year. Maybe one of the HISD Trustee candidates, especially one in a district formerly held by a Republican, will base their campaign on an anti-mask platform, but if so I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. If nothing else, this is a big campaign issue for next year, when we finally get a candidate for Governor out there.

Yes, the wastewater is also pointing to a COVID surge

In case you were wondering.

There is more COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater system now than at any time in the pandemic, city officials said Wednesday, the latest warning that the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, said there is more than three times as much virus in the system as there was last July. The volume also is higher than in January, during the most recent spike. Persse said that wastewater data, a precursor to other data points, show the surge will only grow worse in the coming weeks.

“We are at a level of virus in the wastewater that we have never seen before,” Persse said. “The wastewater predicts what we’ll see in the positivity (rate) by two weeks, which predicts what we’ll see in hospitalizations by about two weeks.”

[…]

The findings came during a news conference in which the city announced it will partner with Harris County and up to 17 school districts to vaccinate students over 12 and their families every Saturday in August, an effort they are calling “Super Saturday.” The inoculations will occur in school buildings throughout the region.

Persse described the state of the surge in stark terms, pointing to dire situations in area hospitals and rising cases and hospitalizations. The Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital declared an “internal disaster” Sunday night amid a nursing shortage and an influx of patients, circumstances officials said are occurring in other area hospitals, as well.

Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon earlier this week said the region is “headed for dark times,” and the hospital system has exceeded its base intensive care capacity, opening unused wards to care for new patients.

“If you are currently unvaccinated, you need to consider that you represent a potential danger to yourself, and others, and most particularly your own family,” Persse said. “If you are not vaccinated… your chances getting through this without having to become either vaccinated or infected, is essentially zero.”

Just over 64 percent of Houstonians over 12 have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to city data, and 54.3 percent are fully vaccinated. The numbers among youth residents are more paltry, though: 28.1 percent of 12-17-year-old Houston residents are fully vaccinated, and 38.5 percent have received their first dose.

“If your child is 12 or older, stop and get them the shot,” said Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II. “Increasing vaccination rates among our communities will help ease the worries of our families and their children returning to school.”

This is another one from earlier in the month, as things were really starting to get bad. We are familiar with this project, and it has been a big success. I just wish it had better news for us, but this is where we are. Getting more of those 12-and-older kids vaccinated would make a big difference as well, so I hope that effort is successful. We’re on our own, so we’d better act accordingly.

A few words from the CEO of the Medical Center

From an interview he did with Lisa Gray.

What we’re seeing, sadly, is more of the same, only with more intense numbers. The number of people who are testing positive in our community continues to escalate month over month. The test positivity rate is now at 15.1 percent.

But probably the most accurate reflection is our hospitalizations. We just reached an all-time high: 421 people were admitted to our hospitals for COVID yesterday.

Step back for a second and look at that relative to the entire pandemic. Back in June and July, we had two weeks where the average number of hospital admissions was over 300. That was in the second wave.

Fast forward to wave three: We had four weeks that averaged over 300.

Now we are into our second week with no slowing the pace. At 421 today, we are seeing the highest peak of all of the pandemic going back 18 months now.

It’s largely a pandemic of the unwilling — people unwilling to be vaccinated. Now 44% of Houstonians are unvaccinated. Those are the vast majority of the people that are showing up in our emergency rooms and and in our ICUs. They’re very sick.

Many people thought that they were young, and therefore their immune system would be strong enough to protect them. That is not the case with this deadly delta variant, which is three times more transmissible than the earlier alpha variant.

Our hospitals’ staffs are 18 months into this. They’re exhausted.

And we have far fewer nurses than we used to have. They’re being recruited to other states, like Florida, that are even worse off than Texas.

The saddest fact is, 18 percent of all the new cases so far in August are children.

With the alpha variant, everyone thought, “OK, it’s 65 and older.” So we went after the nursing homes, and we did a brilliant job at protecting the elderly population and those who are immunocompromised.

But now, that vulnerable population is children under 12, who are not able to be vaccinated. We are predicting a mess in our schools. With nearly 20 percent of new cases being children, now we’re going to huddle them together in schools? Some may have masks. Some may not. It’s a recipe for disaster.

You can read the rest or give it a listen, but his answer to the first question tells you most of what you need to know. Hospitals around the state have been facing a similar crisis. I keep harping on this because it needs to be harped on, as we have a governor who can’t follow his own dictum about “responsible behavior”, a felonious Attorney General who’s soliciting snitches so he can go after rogue mask mandates, and a Legislature that wants to ban mask mandates forever. This is what we’re up against.

I don’t know if I’d call this “good news”, but the projections say we can see the beginning of the end from here.

While hospitalization numbers are nearing the heights they reached during the state’s most fatal surge in January, public health projections indicate that the latest wave will result in fewer deaths — mostly because senior citizens are widely vaccinated and hospital patients are now much younger. Still, state health officials are preparing for the worst, preemptively ordering a fleet of five mortuary trailers from the federal government in case infections spiral.

Public health experts still expect at least some increase in coronavirus deaths over the coming weeks, as fatalities are a lagging indicator — cases rise first, then hospitalizations, then intensive care usage, then deaths.

Now, the state is averaging about 100 daily deaths, a number not expected to exceed 150 over the next month before tapering off. That’s nowhere near the 350 COVID deaths per day that the state saw in January.

“We’ll go up some, but again, not to the levels that we saw back in January,” said Dr. David Lakey, the vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas system, referencing the forecasts.

Still, the precipitous rise in hospitalizations is a cause for concern. More than 12,000 Texans were in the hospital with the virus on Wednesday, with dozens of Texas hospitals running out of ICU beds (during the winter surge, hospitalizations peaked at just over 14,000). Patients are younger than they were in the first two waves of the virus, and almost everyone facing severe illness is unvaccinated.

[…]

Projection models following Texas’ daily COVID case and hospitalization counts anticipate a rise in deaths in the near future. By mid-September, a model offered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the Lone Star State will see about 790 deaths per week, or roughly 113 per day.

Another model, produced by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, projects about 125 deaths per day by mid-September in a worst-case scenario. In both forecasts, it appears that the state has already seen the brunt of its COVID deaths.

That’s largely because the vast majority of Texas’ over-65 population — those most vulnerable to the coronavirus — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, experts said.

“Those that were most at risk of having severe disease have some protection, and that’s good protection because of the vaccine,” Lakey said.

While a spike in hospitalizations and ICU bed usage does portend fatalities, the relationship between those data points will be less “linear” during the third wave, he said. It remains to be seen whether young patients will have other, long-term side effects of the virus — what some are calling “long COVID.”

Deaths will also decrease as more people become vaccinated or recover from the illness, said Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metric science at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The institute’s researchers estimate that about 74 percent of Texans will be immune to the delta variant, either through infection or vaccination, by Dec. 1.

“The virus is running out of people to infect,” he said.

The forecasts should not be interpreted as an assured outcome, though. Public buy-in on safety precautions, including mask-wearing, will ultimately determine the trajectory of the third wave.

In other words, don’t expect a best-case outcome, because we’re not allowed to do the things we need to do to make this less awful. Note also that while extensive vaccinations among older folks will help to limit fatalities, there will still be an excess of deaths in the coming weeks because of the overfilled hospitals – people with other serious conditions will die as a result, as was the case in the previous waves. Now is a very bad time to have a heart attack or be in a car crash.

At least there is a rise in the rate of people getting vaccinated, now that the threat is so much higher. Some of that is the result of mandates and restrictions on unvaccinated people, some is due to pressures and enticements from employers, and some is due to straight up financial rewards. Whatever it takes, whatever it takes.