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Area schools open campuses while preparing for COVID variants

This story has been updated to include comments from Argyle ISD. An earlier version of this story misspelled Julie Zwahr's name.

Some area schools have already reported COVID-19 cases after winter break, while others are planning to open their campuses with pandemic guidelines still in place to continue with in-person classes.

The Texas Tribune reported Tuesday that the state’s public schools have been re-opening even as the milder (but more contagious) omicron variant of COVID-19 has disrupted plans for districts around the state.

Some Texas school districts have reported a shortage of bus drivers due to the virus, and Lancaster, a district near Dallas, reported Tuesday that its winter break would extend through this week because of a rise in cases. In Round Rock, leaders sent a recorded message to families to let them know some teachers would be out as their students returned, with other staff members covering their classes.

Denton County districts have resumed in-person classes or are planning to open campuses to students while monitoring information from Denton County Public Health and the Texas Education Agency.

Denton ISD resumes classes on Thursday, and continues to recommend masks for students, staff members and visitors. Families and employees can consult a handy chart that explains the procedures for those who have confirmed cases and symptoms, and for those who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19. (The district has different procedures for employees and students according to how long ago they were last vaccinated or received a booster, and according to which vaccine they received.)

Julie Zwahr, chief communications officer for the district, said the leadership is working to keep classrooms staffed in the event that teachers test positive or get sick. She couldn’t confirm the status of the district’s substitute teaching ranks by press time.

“I believe like most districts in the metroplex, we are all working to keep our classes covered when teachers are absent,” she said.

Sanger ISD students returned to their campuses on Wednesday. Masks are optional for students, staffers and visitors, and both employees and staff members are required to report positive COVID-19 test results to their campus nurse. Like Denton ISD, Sanger ISD has a chart posted to help staff and students follow procedure. The chart breaks down procedures for those with positive COVID tests, and those with direct household exposure.

Reece Waddell, Sanger ISD communications director, said the district could struggle to meet classroom needs if the omicron variant were to significantly affect teachers and support staff.

“Since the onset of COVID-19, filling substitutes and classrooms has been a challenge and has continued to be a challenge,” Waddell said.

If enough staff were to contract the virus and develop symptoms, the district would likely send students home.

“Any decision Sanger ISD makes on closing campuses will be dictated by having enough personnel to teach,” Waddell said.

Argyle and Krum campuses resumed classes on Tuesday.

Argyle students returned to their campuses with COVID-19 cases confirmed at Hilltop Elementary School, Argyle Middle School and in district non-instructional facilities. According to the district’s COVID-19 active case dashboard, which was last updated on Tuesday, there were two active staff cases and one active student case at Hilltop. At the middle school, there were four active staff cases and no active student cases reported. An additional three staff cases were reported in non-instructional facilities.

At Argyle campuses, staff and students aren’t required to wear masks, but families are required to pre-screen and self-monitor for symptoms. Officials aren’t limiting seating or building capacity.

Students and staff who test positive for the virus are quarantined for 10 days, and students who show multiple symptoms will be sent home and can return after they are cleared by a healthcare provider.

Richard Herrin, director of communications for Argyle ISD, said the district will continue its protocols while making any chances suggested by the TEA. The district monitors cases closely, he said. 

Argyle schools face the same difficulties in keeping its ranks of substitute teachers at a comfortable number during the pandemic. 

"The district continues to seek additional substitute candidates and we have reached out to our community to help spread the word," Herrin said. "Maintaining an adequate pool of candidates has been challenging and we are in need due to the number of absences we are experiencing."

At Krum, masks are optional on all campuses, and the district keeps a routine disinfecting schedule.

Families are asked to follow pre-screening measures, keeping students home when they have a fever and COVID symptoms or if they’ve tested positive for the virus. Students aren’t allowed to return to class until they have been free of a fever for 24 hours. Students who have had close contact with someone who has a confirmed test or case of COVID can also quarantine off campus.

Staff members have to self-screen before coming to campus.

Krum officials can administer rapid tests on school campuses, but children under 18 require parental consent.

A district spokeswoman couldn’t confirm what would trigger school closures, but said the district will follow TEA guidelines while monitoring county health department information and guidelines.

What to watch for when using a lesser-known COVID-19 test provider

The pressure of low COVID-19 testing availability has prompted many residents to turn to whatever test provider they can find, leading to some uncertainty when straying from well-known operations. Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson suggested some basic precautions and said getting tested at all should remain the number one priority.

Testing shortages have popped up in two major ways, depending on the type of test being administered. At-home rapid tests have become one of the most rapidly depleted products on the market, while many professional testing sites are finding it difficult for staff to keep up with appointment volume.

The issue has sparked many to stray off the beaten path for testing, often in “pop-up” sites that have caused trouble in some areas of the country. Houston officials, for example, were urging residents to avoid suspicious testing sites less than a week ago, amid multiple investigations.

Richardson said that while he understands the concerns around pop-up sites, he believes it’s a “case-by-case situation,” and that the most important thing is getting tested.

“Our current recommendation is that the first test available is the best test,” Richardson said. “I know here, we’ve had very few complaints about vendors and criminal activity.”

So what should residents watch out for in smaller sites? Richardson said people should look for details about which specific test they’re receiving and what process the provider will use. As far as information goes, he said anything you’d give to your doctor is something that may be necessary for patient identification at a testing site.

“Some insurances do require a verification, so if they’re trying to use your Social Security number to verify your patient ID, I think that’s possible,” Richardson said. “We encourage these providers doing PCR testing or antigen testing if they’re using approved methods and they can demonstrate that to the patient. We encourage broadening access.”

Locally, some residents have expressed concerns of a smaller operation on East McKinney Street, saying they didn’t get results back quickly and the process wasn’t streamlined. That led to doubts about its legitimacy. Using the number listed on the patient information sheet, the Denton Record-Chronicle made contact with the provider, AD Precision Health based in Carrollton and Dallas.

Precision Health President Adam Deeb confirmed the company is running the site, one of a handful it runs around the DFW area. The Denton site has been up for months, he said, and he’s hoping to get at least 20 more sites up and running through, which will eventually be used as official branding for the operations.

“Supply is actually about to be an issue here pretty soon,” Deeb said. “We have a few different labs we use. It depends on volume and how fast the turnaround time is.”

When it comes to demand, Richardson said it’s hard to get a sense for how testing volume is trending at the national level. As of Monday, he said DCPH was close to being completely booked at this week’s clinics.

“There’s just no way to know,” Richardson said. “I’m not informed on the supply chain for the big pharmacies.”

DCPH’s own testing site lists out its upcoming clinics, in addition to a map locating other testing providers. Not all available providers will be listed.

Lawmakers begin early talks about another round of coronavirus relief targeting businesses

WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican lawmakers have held early discussions about another round of coronavirus stimulus spending as they seek to blunt the fast-spreading omicron variant and its urgent threats to public health and economic recovery.

The early efforts have focused primarily on authorizing billions of dollars to help an array of businesses — including restaurants, performance venues, gyms and even minor league sports teams — that face another potential blow to their already-battered balance sheets as a result of the evolving pandemic.

In recent weeks, the talks have been led by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., according to four people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe their work, which is ongoing. The duo in mid-December cobbled together the outlines of a roughly $68 billion proposal, two of the people said, which could include a mix of new spending and a repurposing of some unused cash authorized under previous packages.

Cardin and Wicker have not yet finalized the business-focused measure, according to those familiar with their work, adding that the two lawmakers have huddled with members from both parties, including Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, in an attempt to build support. They may face an uphill battle in the narrowly divided chamber, where past attempts to provide aid for restaurants and other industries have faltered amid GOP concerns about adding to the federal deficit.

But the talks nonetheless reflect the nation’s growing fears about the omicron variant that has swept across the country with devastating speed. With coronavirus cases surging to record highs — and some hospitals once again under immense strain — lawmakers have started to worry that the pandemic could unleash fresh economic havoc.

For months, the United States appeared to be turning a corner. Coronavirus vaccines and boosters were readily available, new treatments were coming on the market and the economy showed signs of improvement, posting at one point in November the fewest number of new claims for unemployment benefits since the late 1960s. The progress came as a result of considerable investment from Congress, where lawmakers have spent nearly $6 trillion on relief since the start of the pandemic, including a roughly $1.9 trillion package known as the American Rescue Plan that counted as President Joe Biden’s first legislative achievement.

But those hard-fought gains have appeared at risk as businesses and schools once again close and Americans hunker down against a highly transmissible variant of the virus. More than 15,000 flights have been canceled since Christmas Eve, with another 3,000 this Monday alone, as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the workers and businesses upon which the economy depends.

The White House has maintained that it has the resources to respond to any immediate economic disruption caused by the omicron wave. That includes money for public health as part of the American Rescue Plan, as well as billions of dollars provided under the law for states to use as needed, which Biden touted during an event at the White House on Tuesday.

“We’re going to see, as you all have been hearing, a continued rise in cases. Omicron is very transmissible,” the president warned.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed to additional spending that could help turn the tide, including $130 billion that Washington sent to states to try to mitigate the spread of the virus in schools. The money is significant, since school closures could add to the burden on parents, who might be forced to take time off work as a result.

But Psaki otherwise declined to say the White House has engaged in talks with Democrats and Republicans about another tranche of relief targeting businesses, including restaurants, emphasizing only that the Biden administration is in “constant discussions” with lawmakers.

In the meantime, other federal coronavirus stimulus programs have run out of money or reached the end of their planned lives, raising fresh concerns on Capitol Hill that more aid might be needed.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, has already started evaluating existing aid and “potentially the need for additional resources for vaccines, therapeutics, testing and other needs,” according to a committee aide. The inquiry comes weeks after the Biden administration announced a plan to distribute half a billion free at-home tests.

In the House, Democrats on the chamber’s spending panel have held general talks about adding such money, if it is required, to a measure that would fund the government through September, according to an aide familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe early deliberations.

The current spending agreement is set to expire Feb. 18, at which point lawmakers must adopt another short-term deal, finalize a package of bills that keeps the government operational or risk a federal shutdown. That deadline gives lawmakers an opportunity to respond to the omicron variant and other recent crises, including a deadly tornado outbreak in Kentucky, which prompted bipartisan calls for disaster relief.

In a letter last month, Reps. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., asked House and Senate leaders to consider a “targeted relief package,” citing the specific needs of small businesses including restaurants, gyms and live venues. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., meanwhile, has reiterated her requests for Congress to replenish money in a restaurant-specific fund that ran dry months earlier as the hospitality industry braces for another major disruption.

In recent days, many Democrats have seized on the worsening public health crisis to push Congress to revive an expired program that provided monthly payments to more than 35 million families. The proposal to reauthorize the expanded advance child tax credit remains trapped in a broader war between Democrats and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., over the fate of the stalled $2 trillion Build Back Better Act.

“Cutting child poverty in the United States in half is a major accomplishment, and I hope we don’t abandon it,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the majority whip, told reporters Tuesday.

Other lawmakers have trained their sights on public health spending measures: About 80 House and Senate Democrats asked congressional leaders at the end of last year to approve at least $17 billion to help deliver more coronavirus vaccines globally, arguing that not doing so could enable variants even more worrisome than omicron.

“No investment in the fight against covid-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible,” the coalition wrote.

Many Republicans have long maintained that additional aid is unnecessary. GOP lawmakers voted unanimously against the American Rescue Plan last spring, calling much of its spending wasteful. Months later, their opposition threatens to complicate any effort to advance even a smaller, targeted stimulus measure through the narrowly divided Senate.

Republicans fired their latest political salvo on Monday, criticizing the Biden administration for failing to make quick use of existing spending to ensure the widespread availability of coronavirus testing.

Citing more than $80 billion set aside for the Department of Health and Human Services, Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in a letter to the agency that it is “unclear to us why we are facing such dire circumstances now.”

“It does not appear to be because of lack of funding, but a more fundamental lack of strategy and a failure to anticipate future testing needs by the administration,” they wrote.

A year after Jan. 6 riot: Trials for Denton County locals to come in the next year

One year ago, Americans watched as people — some from Denton County — marched from a rally for then-President Donald Trump to the U.S. Capitol building, forcing their way past barricades and windows.

Since then, at least 725 people from all 50 states have been arrested on charges ranging from entering the Capitol building without permission to assaulting police officers, according to a Dec. 30 tally from the U.S. Department of Justice. Seven people with ties to Denton County are among them, from Jenna Ryan’s arrest days after the riot to Trophy Club’s Kerry Persick’s arrest in May 2021.

As the one-year anniversary comes Thursday, a University of North Texas law school professor says sentencing for defendants will most definitely continue past 2022.

“As of Dec. 10, there were about 50 sentences,” Michael Maslanka said. “Most of those were misdemeanors. … And what’s happening is generally these misdemeanors are the nonviolent offenders of Jan. 6. What’s taking longer to wind through the system are the felonies, and it’s because you can go to jail [longer].”

Those felony cases have much more at stake, Maslanka said. He said one of the continuing issues going into 2022 is people being denied bail in their cases because they did something reckless prior to the riot or engaged in violence there and judges deeming them flight risks.

The longest sentence so far is for a Florida man who threw a wooden plank-like spear at police officers and threw a fire extinguisher at them in the midst of severe fighting at the Capitol’s lower west terrace. Robert Palmer was sentenced to just over five years in prison.

Palmer’s sentence came months after he pleaded guilty to assaulting law enforcement with a dangerous weapon.

One Denton County resident, Daniel Ray Caldwell, is once again asking a U.S. District Court judge to reconsider conditions for his release, according to a Dec. 27 court filing. Caldwell is accused of assaulting officers by spraying an orange mist toward a police barricade line.

Court records show a Texas Eastern District Court judge ruled he should remain in jail pending trial due to his previous criminal history, which included a history of violence, weapons use and substance abuse.

David Lee Judd, a Carrollton resident who allegedly threw a flaming object at Capitol police officers, was released on a personal recognizance bond months after his arrest in March 2021.

Both of their cases remain pending a jury trial. Jury trials are also pending for Persick, Jason Lee Hyland and Katherine “Katie” Schwab. Hyland and Schwab’s cases are connected to Ryan’s because the three of them flew together from Denton to attend Trump’s rally.

While the three of them pleaded not guilty after their arrests, Ryan changed her plea a few months ago and was sentenced in November to 60 days in prison.

Ryan was supposed to turn herself in to the Federal Bureau of Prisons this month, but she ended up surrendering early. Federal records show she’s at Federal Prison Camp Bryan in Brazos County, a minimum security federal prison for women.

A year after the riot, more than 350 participants remain unidentified, according to the DOJ. In the Dallas division of the FBI, a spokesperson said they’ve arrested 35 people. Denton County is in its jurisdiction.

Those North Texas area arrests have continued throughout 2021. FBI Dallas spokesperson Melinda Urbina said two men in their jurisdiction were arrested on Dec. 13. Both are accused of fighting with police officers.

There isn’t an indication of any cases dropped against people on the DOJ’s update. Arrests would come up to 1,000 if the more than 350 people federal agents are still trying to identify come into custody.

“For us, as leads come down that there’s a possible subject in our area, we’re still working on those,” Urbina said. “That has not stopped. It’ll continue because the amount of outstanding people who have not been identified is pretty large.”