Author Archives: SiteAministrator2020

State Officials Confirm That State Resources Are En Route To Nueces County

Original: July 8, 2020 4:58 pm; Updated: July 9, 2020 10:36 am

Earlier in the day on Wednesday lawmakers made a formal request to state emergency managers for a surge team to be dispatched to Nueces County to assist with the increasing coronavirus numbers that are being seen in the county.

In an email the Nueces County Legislative Delegation announced that the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has deployed the requested state resources and they are expected to arrive on July 10.

How Will Those Resources Be Distributed?

Corpus Christi Medical Center: 16 staff have been identified and are being deployed to Doctors Regional. Corpus Christi Medical Center also sent in a secondary request for 28 medical staff, which have been approved.

Christus Spohn Shoreline Hospital: 40 staff currently on-site. Another 38 staff have been deployed.

Christus Spohn South: 16 staff have been requested.

The state’s contractor, BCFS said that they are currently seeking staff which are available for deployment.


In a joint statement, the delegation said the following:

“We continue working with our county and city officials to ensure the state is providing our region the necessary staff and resources to help us respond to the surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. We thank Governor Greg Abbott and our state agencies for quickly responding to our needs by sending staff and ventilators to our hospitals, providing much needed relief. To carry out our mission to successfully provide the health care needs for COVID-19, requires everyone at all levels of government working together. We are all in this together, and we can only succeed through collective action where everyone is working toward solving this crisis as one community.”

The Department of State Health Services also confirmed that a forward deployment of ventilators and O2 concentrate has occurred. This will ensure quick distribution in the event of an urgent need.

While the resources are en route to the county to help take the strain off of the hospitals by design, employees at places like the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center may have to wait a little bit longer to get the help that they have been demanding. That is due in part to local management refusing to admit that there is a problem or even an outbreak within the facility.

While none of these resources are going to be going directly to the State Supported Living Center directly, they will be going to the hospitals where the most critical patients will be treated.

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services has yet to respond to the situation at the center, and they would have to be the agency to send down an emergency response team to assist with the crisis there. So far, Health and Human Services Commission management has not even let it be known that there is even a problem at the facility, which leads to the idea of a possibility of a serious cover-up.

Lawmakers Send Request For Surge Team To Nueces County

State Representative Todd Hunter has sent an email to the Texas Department of State Health Services and Texas Department of Emergency Management asking for a surge to be sent to Nueces County to help with testing and comprehensive medical needs.

Rep. Hunter sent the notice after conferring with State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and fellow State Rep. Abel Herrero, who are all in agreement with the request.

Nueces County Judge Canales and Corpus Christi Mayor Joe McComb were also notified of the request for assistance from the lawmakers.

The request comes as hospitalizations and new cases continue to rise both in our community and around the state.

This is a developing story and will be updated throughout.

Texas education officials announce a return to school plan for the upcoming school year and here is what you can do to let your voice be heard

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) dropped their official guidance for the return to on-campus education starting this fall. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath made the announcement via conference call Tuesday to educators and officials from around the state. At best, the guidance was generic and left many with more questions than answers.

Morath said schools will have to offer on-campus instruction for families that want it in order for their virtual attendance to be counted. However, he did say that could change if the governor issues another closure order.

The first thing to come up was the topic of face masks and coverings for staff and students. The guidance currently says that everyone over the age of 10 will have to wear a face covering (plastic shield, cloth mask, disposable mask, etc.), per the governor’s executive order last week. He did not address how that would impact things such as athletics or band activities or if students and staff would be forced to wear them while participating in those activities. Some education consultants that we spoke with Tuesday evening believe that the order would apply to any all “school related functions.” Although, there was no certain guidance given.

Districts will be required to offer on-campus instruction five days a week for any family that wants it. That is the contradiction. Some districts have already developed plans already put forward by some districts, which wanted do a “hybrid” model where one group group comes a few days a weeks, and another group comes on opposite days with both groups possibly doing some sort of remote learning in between.

Morath the went onto explain that districts will not be able to limit the number of students in a building. If 100% of families want in-person instruction five days a week, the schools will have to bring them all on campus regardless of what educators and administrators feel is the best practice.

“We have a public health crisis and it continues and we cannot allow that to become and ed crisis so it’s going to be a lot of hard work for educators across the state of Texas,” Morath said.

“On-campus instruction in Texas public schools is where it’s at,” Morath said during a conference call with superintendents. “We know that a lot of families are going to be nervous, and if they are nervous, we’re going to support them 100 percent.”

TEA leaders are leaving many health and hygiene decisions to superintendents, a long-expected decision given the varying spread of the novel coronavirus in different corners of the state. However, state officials issued some mandates Tuesday, including a requirement that teachers and staff self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before entering a campus.

SO WHAT IS THE REACTION?

Some school staff members and parents fear the resumption of in-person instruction will cause the virus to spread more rapidly, particularly if classes restart in areas such as right here in Corpus Christi, that are already experiencing an outbreak. While children display symptoms of COVID-19 at low rates, public health officials are not yet certain about how often they are infected and spread the virus to adults.

On Tuesday evening, The Southside Light News spoke with three of the state’s four largest teacher unions and organizations. They were quick to offer criticism of the plan. All three of the unions that we spoke with argued that Texas education leaders are moving too quickly to reopen campuses and failing to require enough safety protocols.

They all believe that by allowing up to 100 percent of a school’s students to return to campuses will put kids and teachers at risk. Parents seem to agree.

“I don’t like this,” said Marjorie Mendoza of Corpus Christi. “So what if I want my son to stay at home and learn that way but his friends are all out playing in the band? What they are doing is making this very difficult for parents. You have one group that will go to band or football and another group that will keep their kids at home. Then your kids feel like you are keeping them from their friends when all you are doing is trying to keep them safe.”

We also spoke with three child psychologists who feel the same way. They say that you are forcing the kids to pick a certain activity or be punished for being safe. They also worry about bullying from parents who speak of concerned parents calling them names and making jokes about how the protective parents are not good parents. Child development experts say that they worry this guidance creates a social division and that isn’t healthy.

ROOM FOR INTERPRETATION

In the vague guidance that was published by the TEA on Tuesday there was a political “get out of jail free card” which would allow for changes to be made with the guidance. Morath and state superintendents have been meeting regularly and at one point they were even meeting every single day to discuss the fluid situation. Tuesday’s announcement left room for changes.

State lawmakers have little say-so in the matter and the actual decision making lies with the state’s superintendents, many of whom already for some of reason are fearful of standing up to Commissioner Morath. But that could very well be short lived as parents, teachers, school boards and superintendents begin voicing their dislike of the plan.

The long pole in the tent is extra-curricular activities like band and football. So far, it seems like the overall idea would be that if a district decided to go fully remote then there would likewise be no athletics or band or other extra-circular activities. That is something that Morath did not address in the Tuesday phone call. He also only touched on the notion that TEA offices will remain on remote work until January 2021 while everybody else continues to work. Observers feel like this is not the last version of the guidance that anybody will see and that a revised version could likely be issued soon if people start voicing their disagreement.

SO WHERE DOES THE REVISION START?

Concerned parents, teachers and educators who have an opinion on the matter can start voicing their concerns at the local level to the superintendent of their school district. They can then follow that up by contacting the Texas Education Agency and leaving a voicemail. Parents and educators can also Send and email to Comissioner Morath’s email voicing their concerns or thoughts on the matter.

Protecting The Vulnerable: The Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center Faces Scrutiny Over Potential Mishandling Of COVID-19

Matt Pierce Briscoe

The first case of coronavirus at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center (CCSSLC) was reported back on June 24, 2020. From there, the situation spiraled out of control amid what current and recently departed staff members report as a severely mismanaged crisis.

In an email sent out to staff members n June 24, Director Melissa Gongaware told them that all staff were to immediately begin wearing face masks. However, staff there continue to claim that they were not provided proper protective equipment for days, many are saying that they still do not have access to it.

Officially, Senior level employees maintain that Director Gongaware claimed that at the time there was only one single case of coronavirus at the facility. Records obtained by the Southside Light and statements from employees say that too is blatantly false.

“At the time we had at least 4-5 positive residents with many more that had fever,” one current member of the medical staff there told us on Monday. “She minimized the number. I had learned of the positive cases the day before from a peer who felt we should know.”

We reached out to State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and State Representative Todd Hunter for answers. Late Monday afternoon, Senator Hinojosa confirmed that there was a conference call with Department of Health and Human Services officials and that there was a “top-down” approach to trying to get answers. But those answers will likely be very hard to come by because of all the apparently blatant disregard for transparency by local and state level managers.

Former employee Robert Quinones was terminated for not reporting to work after exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus.

“That for the simple fact I lost my job because they did not give me the proper ppe and I still felt sick after my 14-day quarantine,
Quinones said. “My test results were unclear (at the time) but was still diagnosed with acute upper respiratory infection and did not want to spread what I had to the clients with low immune systems was terminated by email.”

Quinones was still exhibiting signs of what could have been coronavirus and he was not willing to take the chance on getting those that genuinely cared for sick. Quinones was fired even though there was a protocol in place for staff members who exhibited symptoms of coronavirus.

“She (Gongaware) definitely puts staff in harm’s way,” Quinones says. “The only time she comes out of her office is when the state comes down to visit and God-forbid a client trying talk to her she’s forever in a ‘meeting.’”

Quinones is not alone. Even though some staff members back then tested negative, physicians still suggested that they self-quarantine for a period and take proper precautions. Local managers of the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center were not buying that either.

Employees say that after they had paid for the testing themselves or used their insurance they were still forced by order from Gongaware to return to work.

Note from an ER physician with test result and precautions to an employee of the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center.

“The facility isn’t accepting these from doctors either,” the fiancé of of employee said after providing documentation of their claim. “My fiancé works there and has flu like symptoms for the reason going to premier doctor ordered him out til the 17th. He told his supervisor and she didn’t accept it.”

Their reasoning? “Everyone is getting this,” they were told.

On Tuesday, The Southside Light received confirmation that there were 21 new cases of Covid-19 among residents at the facility, taking the new number of reported cases among residents to 68.

On Monday, local health officials reported to the Corpus Christi Caller Times that there was only 37 reported cases among residents. That number was later confirmed to be inaccurate and staff there with knowledge of the situation say that Gongaware and her direct staff intentionally mislead local health officials in an attempt to downplay the severity of the situation—just like what happened back on June 24 when the initial outbreak began to occur.

Employees that we talked to are scared that they are going to end up becoming infected with coronavirus themselves and that the lack of personal protective equipment is more than concerning.

Monday evening, The Southside Light learned that at least one nurse at the facility has tested positive for coronavirus and that because the medical staffing situation is so bad there, the nurse continued to work on the COVID-19 isolation wing even after presenting with symptoms.

State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, State Representative Todd Hunter and others were allowed to review the recorded statement from the nurse who had knowledge of the situation.

“Yes, I am worried that we are going to catch it and I am worried for my patients because we just do not have enough nursing staff to handle this situation,” one nurse that we spoke with told us Monday night. “I mean just to take care of these residents if I get it I will just have to keep coming to work because we do not have the nursing staff to handle it.”

Department of Health and Human Services officials maintain that the facility has 800 staff members and that the number is well adequate to handle any outbreak. However, only a very small portion of those staff members are licensed medical professionals who can provide nursing level staff. That number the nursing staff is very misleading.

“We actually have about 800 employees and that number consist of hundreds of professional and licensed workers, administrative assistants, maintenance, grounds keepers, custodians, laundry, central receiving, pharmacy, psychiatry, HAB therapies, nurses, etc.,” one Senior Staff member clarified for us on Monday. “We actually only have a few hundred direct care staff.”

“Our facility saying we have 800 staff is extremely misleading,” the Senior Level Staffer said.

Part of the problem is that there are layers of protective mechanisms in place that protect facility directors and mid to upper level Commission staff.

Persons within HHSC confirm that Melissa Gongaware is from the Austin area and has deep connections with Senior level management who have taken a personal interest in her success as a director, despite having had major incidents at places such as the El Paso State Supported Living Center and another facility in Austin. Scott Schalchlin, an Associate Commissioner of the agency has reportedly continually pressed for Gongaware to retain her status and position within the agency despite knowing of the severe allegations and instances of misconduct.

Our initial reporting is reportedly outraged both Gongaware and Schalchiln. Enough so that friends of Schalachiln and of Gongaware began sending and posting defensive comments on behalf of their friends. When confronted by the press and the public, they refused to respond.

“I can tell you that the article had her so angry, that she had our assistant director come in during the weekend to figure out our staffing needs for the upcoming week,” the Senior Level staff told us on Monday. “I also believe she is somewhat nervous because she is fully aware of the Public Information Act. But I’m sure she’ll find a way to delete the documents.”

On Monday, The Southside Light requested documents, emails, text message and all internal communications between Schalchiln and Gongaware for the past 6 weeks regarding the coronavirus response and the situation at the facility. Barring any potential legal wrangling, those should be available within ten days.

“I’ve never seen anyone as protected as Gongaware is,” the Senior Level local staffer told us on Monday.

The debate as to potential misconduct and mismanagement that likely has led to a significant outbreak could be a matter for a later date if and when hearings actually take place. The real question is what is going on here and how do the staff and families get the answers that they need?

Nurses that we spoke with on Monday and Tuesday said that they are increasingly concerned with the infection control practices at the facility. We were provided confidential documentation and internal communications which were also forwarded to lawmakers for their review and they are concerned and now wanting answers and action from Commissioner Phil Wilson.

Just Tuesday morning, a medical worker at the facility notified us that there were N95 industrial (non-medical rated) masks available for use. However, those masks are not being provided to staff members who are already potentially infected and are being kept behind lock and key.

The problems at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center are a signal of a much larger statewide problem that appears to start with mismanagement from the mid-levels and an internal peer protective mechanism that even policy makers agree must be immediately dealt with and it obviously starts with busting up obvious problems like these.

Turnover is extremely high statewide. It has been this way for a couple years. It has been such a problem that state office approved a state wide pay raise for direct care staff as an incentive for them to stay or apply to work.

At the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center, specifically, many of the staff say that prior to the coronavirus outbreak, other staff have quit for variable reasons. For a while, staff were quitting because they were fearful for their safety. The Center is home to a few very aggressive individuals that will create makeshift weapons and some of the staff have been seriously injured.

“We began having positive cases late June. We didn’t get face shields till 7/2,” another member of the medical staff said who was in fear of losing her job but felt like the story had to be told. “I’ve sent some emails. Please don’t share my identity. I’d like to keep fighting for these people as long as I can.”

And that is the overall mentality of the frontline workers there at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Facility who are trying their best to care for what Governor Abbott recognizes as some of “our state’s most vulnerable residents.” Because of the seriousness of the situation, the safety, security and well-being of 188 of those residents is now a serious point of concern.

He was supposed to be in prison less than a year. Instead, he died after catching the coronavirus.

Jolie McCullough, Texas Tribune

James Allen Smith was only supposed to be at a Texas prison for a matter of months, sentenced to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program after he pled guilty to a repeat DWI offense in January.

But in May, while in a Huntsville prison where Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials halted almost all movement as inmates and employees fell ill with the new coronavirus, the 73-year-old retired teacher from Bastrop also contracted the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Instead of coming home to his family after completing a short program, Smith died in prison custody on June 11.

“We never thought this would happen,” Lani Davis, Smith’s 26-year-old granddaughter, told The Texas Tribune last week, shock still evident in her voice. “He was going to get out, he was being fine… He was only sentenced to six months.”

At least 84 Texas state prisoners have died after catching the new coronavirus, according to TDCJ reports. The death toll, which the agency’s leader called “unprecedented,” is the second highest among state prison systems. Those who have died include men serving life sentences, a man who was days away from his release date, and others, like Smith, who were only supposed to be locked up for a short time.

The number of confirmed active cases of coronavirus has gone down in Texas prisons in recent weeks, but the Texas Department of Criminal Justice continues to report more deaths. At least 84 inmates have died after catching the coronavirus, with dozens more deaths still pending investigations and preliminary autopsy reports, TDCJ reported. Ten people who work at prisons have also died with the virus.

For months, advocates in Texas and across the country have pushed for the early release of some vulnerable prisoners — such as those with underlying health problems — as lockups became hotspots for the new coronavirus that has killed more than 2,600 people in the state. They argued that a smaller prison population would make it easier for inmates to socially distance and also better protect prison employees who can spread the virus to their families and communities.

But while some states have moved to release more parole-eligible prisoners or those nearing the end of their sentences, Texas practices have gone unchanged.

“The spread of COVID in the prison system has shown that a period of incarceration for a number of people has turned into a death sentence,” said Peter Steffensen, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “That doesn’t change the fact that the parole board and the governor are both empowered to take a number of different steps that they could have and should have months ago.”

Nearly 9,500 of about 131,000 people in Texas state prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to TDCJ reports. Though the number of confirmed active cases went down in recent weeks, the agency continues to report more deaths.

At least ten people who work in Texas prisons have also died after contracting the virus, the agency has reported. More than 1,700 TDCJ employees were confirmed to have the virus.

TDCJ has been criticized for its handling of the pandemic by prisoner rights advocates, family members, and inmates — both in letters and a federal lawsuit. But early prison release decisions in Texas fall to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose members are appointed by the governor. As the pandemic began taking hold in Texas earlier this year, both the board and Gov. Greg Abbott rejected the idea of early prison releases, with Abbott tweeting in March that “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution.” A spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the governor has changed his stance.

Abbott’s decision was supported by some Texas law enforcement officials, who feared more prison and jail releases could lead to more crime while the state is already in a public health crisis. On Wednesday, the parole board reaffirmed that “there have been no changes to the manner in which the [board] renders parole decisions.”

The state prison population did drop, however, because intake of new inmates from county jails was halted in April. On Wednesday, TDCJ again began accepting newly sentenced inmates on a limited basis after “significant consideration and planning,” a spokesperson said. That includes people who, like Smith, have been waiting in a local jail to be sent to a TDCJ rehabilitation program.

After entering the state prison system, Smith landed at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville for his rehab program shortly before the coronavirus shut down prison visitation and intake from jails.

Even after the virus was confirmed on his unit and his movement was restricted, he still wrote frequent letters and called his family on Saturdays. But in early May, the letters abruptly stopped, and one of his three daughters, Jami Smith Hanchey, later noticed her letters to him were returned undelivered.

Neither she nor her sister, who was Smith’s emergency contact, were told anything about his condition. But when she looked on the online inmate database in late May, Hanchey saw that her father had been transferred to the prison hospital in Galveston.

The sisters desperately and unsuccessfully tried to get information on their father. Finally, in early June, a prison supervisor called Hanchey to tell her Smith had a stroke but was OK and back at the Estelle Unit.

“Within one week, he’s died,” Hanchey, 45, said. “I don’t even know what from yet. Maybe another stroke? Maybe COVID?”

TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel said Thursday that Smith first tested positive for the coronavirus on May 7 at Estelle and was moved to isolation. Desel said Smith was in the hospital from May 23 to June 5 for “a non-COVID ailment,” though he again tested positive for the virus while there. He was sent back to Estelle still actively infected with the virus, and six days later he was sent to a Huntsville hospital and died after going into cardiac arrest, Desel said.

TDCJ lists the deaths of 84 men who have died in its custody as “presumed COVID-19 deaths.” The presumptions are largely based on initial autopsy reports and medical investigations, and the cause of dozens of additional inmate deaths are still being investigated as potentially COVID-related. Desel said in some cases, though an inmate tested positive for the coronavirus, it is clear “it had absolutely nothing to do with their death.”

TDCJ notes on its list of presumed COVID-19 deaths that Smith had pre-existing conditions — Hanchey said he was on medication for a heart condition. But the agency said Smith’s preliminary autopsy results indicate COVID-19 was a contributing cause in his death.

Of the inmates with COVID-19 who died, Smith was supposed to spend the shortest amount of time in prison. But four others were serving sentences of five or fewer years.

Gerald Barragan, 62, was serving five years after being convicted of possessing two small bags of cocaine in Kendall County, according to court documents.

Another 62-year-old, Joe Channel, was given a three-year sentence in Nacogdoches County for jumping bail on a since-dismissed charge of drug possession.

David Uhrich, 60, had three years left on a five-year sentence out of Travis County on a drug dealing charge.

And 28-year-old Nicolas Andres Sanchez was sent to prison for three years after his probation was revoked for failing to report to his probation officer on a Dallas County domestic violence charge.

Of those serving longer sentences, 10 prisoners who had COVID-19 when they died had five years or fewer left to serve. One man, 54-year-old Alfredo De La Vega, died on May 5 with 12 days left on a 20-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault.

In late March, when only a handful of TDCJ prisoners were known to be infected with the virus, inmates at a geriatric unit sued the agency for its handling of the pandemic. They argued for more protective measures like face masks and hand sanitizer.

But at hearings in early April, the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit kept coming back to a potentially simpler solution for the older, sick men that largely comprised the unit’s population.

“Would it be difficult for the prison authorities to make an early cut? To say, if people have all these characteristics: they are of compromised health, they are over the age of 65, they have served at least 75% of their sentence, and they have a habitat to go to, would it be hard to make that cut?” U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in Houston asked in the teleconference hearing.

After some silence and noncommittal answers, agency representatives eventually told the judge that it’s not possible for TDCJ to decide that. Release decisions come from the parole board, and though there are mechanisms in place for the board to release more people for medical reasons, it is not being used on a large scale, according to board reports.

The board can approve early parole review and release for prisoners who are mentally ill, disabled, terminally ill, or require long-term care under “medically recommended intensive supervision.” But the program is rarely used. Last year, 76 inmates — fewer than 3% of those referred to the board — were approved for such release, according to a board report.

This year, 22 people were approved for early medical release between March and June, according to the board spokesperson.

“The only thing holding [the parole board] back is themselves,” said Steffenson, the Texas Civil Rights Project attorney. “We’ve seen dozens of people die and the expectation is that there are many more to come, and that’s a shame.”

Prisoner rights advocates have also called on the board to quickly release men and women who the parole board have already approved for release. In May, thousands of inmates had been approved for parole pending completion of education or rehabilitation programs — but because those programs had largely come to a standstill due to the virus, the inmates remained locked up.

Advocates and family members asked the governor and the board to let such inmates complete those programs outside prison walls, but those requests went unanswered.

Corrections departments, parole boards, judges and governors in numerous other states have released prisoners early during the pandemic. By May, Wisconsin released more than 1,400 people who were being held for probation or parole violations, while the governors of Kentucky and Oklahomacommuted hundreds of prisoners’ sentences. Multiple other states, including California and Ohio, approved the release of some inmates who had only months left on their sentences.

In Texas, Smith’s family said the system failed him — turning his six-month program into a death sentence. Since he wasn’t sentenced to prison, only the in-prison program, Hanchey feels Bastrop County and TDCJ both let her father slip through the cracks.

“He just felt like it was going to be like six months, get this over with,” Hanchey said.

A touching radio call: A wife says farewell over the air

Just after 3:00 pm on Monday there was a frail voice make a radio call on the amateur radio airwaves from out around Mathis, but the exact location was largely unknown. The female’s obviously elderly voice sounded somewhat urgent as she made her call. She had a message for anybody who would listen.

“Is there anybody out there near the radio?”

Seconds later there was a response from a radio operator near Mustang Island. Was there some sort of emergency? All ears stood by for what came next.

“I just wanted to let you guys know that my husband, Richard Joyner passed away on June 25,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you guys thank you.”

There was a short exchange between the operator out on Mustang Island and she slowly repeated her husband’s call-sign.

“Keep on talkin,’” the frail voice closed out. You could almost hear the tears in her voice. She just wanted to pass along the sad news and to tell everybody “thanks.”

After the sign off, a handful of radio operators chimed in their condolences as the thoughtful new widow must have been listening. There could not have been a more fitting farewell.

While things were going pretty fast and furious here in our little newsroom, it all came to a stop for just a moment at just after 3:00 pm on a Monday afternoon.

Our personal condolences go out to the family.

You can read Mr. Joyner’s Mr. Joyner’s obituary here or leave the family a message.

Educators, school districts, parents and teachers find themselves left with more questions than answers as a new school year draws closer

Matt Pierce Briscoe

The Texas Education Agency has almost every parents, student, educator and school district in their own predicament as they have still yet to announce official guidance for the upcoming school year. While the agency and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath have sent some messages to school officials around the state, the message that he is sending is not sitting well.

What is the big deal? Some Texas school districts are set report back to work in 3 to 4 weeks, pointing at mid-August. There has still be no official guidance from the Texas Education Agency on the guidelines for safely opening school. But what Commissioner Mike Morath did say is that school districts that do not return in the fall will face harsh financial penalties and even lose some of their funding—a critical element to the success of most districts, especially as the current chances of anybody being able to get a bond passed are slim to none at the moment.

So far, Commissioner Mike Morath’s decision to direct the Texas Education Agency to withhold funding unless schools are open in August is seen by many educators as a message that state level administrators think that school staff safety is of no concern.

Part of the problem is that as staff and students return to work, it will be hard for them to practice safe social distancing. Think about a classroom and how tight space already is in most of them. Educators say that to maintain proper social distancing, they would have to hold classes in rooms that are twice the size as they already are if you were to put six feet or so between desks. Many educators rely on the space for much needed teaching materials, supplies and in classroom storage. That space is just not something that most school districts have readily on hand and available.

But then there lies another problem—money. As Commissioner Morath and other state level administrators continue to play dodgeball with their guidance for districts, many are worried that as COVID-19 positives continue to increase here in Texas, that could potentially put full-time educators at-risk for exposure and infection. Would there be any state or federal funding for substitute teachers? The answer is no.

Some communities which are considered to heavily black, indigenous, people of color, or “BIPOC” communities, are facing higher than normal rates of infection for COVID-19. Places such as Corpus Christi, Houston, Dallas and much of the Rio Grande Valley would fit, at least somewhat within that demographic. Educators in those communities worry that they will be more at risk for infection and that there might not be enough state or federal money to cover the cost of recruiting, paying for and retaining properly suited substitute teachers to fill the potential gaps.

A recent statewide report showed the distance and digital learning was not suitable for everybody—especially those in lower income areas. Parts of Corpus Christi and Flour Bluff both fit well within that demographic, too. Most educators around the state seem to agree that while distance or digital learning is disproportionate—it is the safest way to educate Texas children right now as the rate of infection continues to be uncontrolled.

Educators are also concerned about the safety of not only their students and fellow staff, but for their own families. On a recent conference call over 100 Texas public school teachers let their concerns be known that there has been no mention of budgets for PPE, sanitation or hazardous duty pay for them. They are maintaining that there has also been no real concern given for those educators who are considered to be high-risk or live with high risk individuals.

There is also the question of not if, but when an outbreak occurs within the confines of a public school—then what happens? The Texas Education Agency did not have an answer for that one yet either.

As this coming school year draws near there is one thing that is looming far and wide—fear of the unknown and the idea that nobody is listening, and that has educators and families concerned and left wondering through the coming weeks without much to cling onto.

Increased Concerns About The Situation At The Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center Cause Public Outrage

It was over a week ago when employees and family members began becoming concerned about the coronavirus situation at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center. As we first reported earlier in the week, there have been now as many as 50 confirmed cases of coronavirus among the estimated 182 resident population. As tragic as that is in itself, those charged with caring for those who call the center home are being left at serious risk and often without proper protection.

The Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center has approximately 182 current residents. (Southside Light News)

Earlier in the week Melissa Gongaware, Director of the facility provided lawmakers with a briefing as to what was happening at the center. In response to their questions Gongaware led them to believe that things were just fine—but staff members there believe that Gongoware intentionally mislead officials into believing that the situation was less than extremely critical.

Staff there confirm that Gongaware sent out a directive to inform families that there was only one lone case of coronavirus there at the facility even though they knew that there was a rapidly spreading breakout that would eventually take over the entire facility. And that is exactly what employees say has happened.

“The specialized housing units are overflowing,” one high level staff member told us on Saturday. “We are sending sick residents back to their units for as much as three hours before we can find a place for them.”

“They told us on Friday that this could be the worst week yet,” the staff told us. “They are concerned that we won’t have enough staff to handle it.”

Staff members told us that other staffers with professional licenses are being told to prepare to begin working in housing units early next week if and when the situation continues to deteriorate at the facility. Everybody appears to be going on high alert.

Some residents were sent to the hospital this week for further treatment. When time came for some of them to return to the living center, senior staffers said that is when the problem started.

“We had to call Christus Spohn Hospital Shoreline and beg them to hold the patients until we could find a place for them,” the staff said. “That is how bad it is.”

And that places a strain on a hospital system that is already becoming strained and health officials are looking for ways to manage their own situation.

There are cases of coronavirus on each of the three housing units at the facility. (Southside Light News)

The senior level staff member also said that on Friday, the Director informed them that the upcoming week would likely be “one of the worst” that they have seen yet, as the facility is now reporting coronavirus cases on each of the three housing units at the facility.

Senior staff members have pointed out how executive management has repeatedly neglected to request assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services Commission which is charged with overseeing and operating the system.

“To our credit we do have a plan in place,” the Senior Staffer said. “But it isn’t using it.”

That plan would call for outside assistance from other HHSC facilities around the state. But the staffers say that finding people to come in and risk their lives at a facility that is plagued with mismanagement and danger is easier said than done.

“At Denton they had National Guard tents and resources on-site to help,” the staffer said. “We don’t have that here because she won’t tell them that we need it.”

Needing it is an understatement. On Saturday, we also spoke with employees who have repeatedly contacted their ombudsman for help. Administration claims that they are being provided N95 masks and other protective devices that are rated to protect against the dangerous coronavirus. But employees say that they are mostly being provided “regular surgical masks and flimsy plastic face shields” to protect them.

“I work there and I don’t even want to go to work because it is so dangerous,” another provider there at the facility told us. “Management is putting our residents and our staff at risk and I am sick of it.”

“A lot of these employees make little more than minimum wage and they didn’t sign up for this,” the senior staff told us. “You can’t blame them.”

When asked what more could be done all of the employees there at the facility say that all she has to do is ask for help.

We reached out for an answer from Gongaware, who records show has worked for the state at least 8 years and makes $130,000 per year from taxpayers. She has yet to respond to our request for comment on the situation.

Gongaware is no stranger to controversy. Records show that she came to the Corpus Christi State Living Center after transferring in from the El Paso State Living Center where families of residents and and independent observers accused her and others of neglect and misconduct.

Facility Administrator Melissa Gongaware came to Corpus Christi via El Paso where she was accused of neglect and misconduct along with other key senior staff members. (Southside Light News)

“We have all had serious concerns about her,” another employee said on Saturday. “She frequently asks us to alter documents and make false statements to families in order to keep them from questioning her. She is determined that she is going to keep her job at any cost possible.”

Senior Staffers at the facility say that they were also told by Gongaware to not speak with the media and to not even acknowledge the existence of a Special Report that the Southside Light News published on Thursday.

“Once that report hit their desks they went into full panic mode,” staffers said. “We were told to pretend that it doesn’t even exist.”

We were also informed by senior staffers that many of the residents who require 1 on 1 observation are being left alone at the facility. Staffers said that they are concerned that the staffing situation is as critical as it was when Sean Yates, a resident of the facility was able to leave the facility and was found days later with a broken nose floating in Corpus Christi Bay. The staff members that we spoke with are concerned that with staffing currently so low as it is and with many becoming sick or symptomatic, that something like that could happen again.

Most of the residents at the facility are there by order of the court and suffer from a variety of disabilities.

Members of the public are also speaking out.

“I know family members who work there and I am hearing these same stories,” says Angela Rodriguez of Corpus Christi. “I fear for her life every single time she goes to work and she doesn’t make anything.”

Rodriguez has a daughter who works at the facility. “I mean it is a way to get into the door but it is not worth your life.”

Others like Manuel Sanchez, who lives directly behind the facility says that he feels concern himself.

“I worry that this is going to get even more into the community because they cannot stop it,” Sanchez said on Saturday. “My daughter-in-law works there and I pray that she doesn’t end up giving it to my grandson. She tells me about how bad it is.”

With the public and staff members demanding action there is concern that enough is not being done to protect some of our most vulnerable residents, those that serve them and the surrounding population.

We have requested all documents concerning the outbreak from the Health and Human Services Commission. We have also reached out to Senator Lois Kolkhorst who heads up the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services as well as Vice-Chair Senator Charles Perry. We are told that each of them are looking into the situation.

“Kill ’em.” Houston GOP powerbroker Steve Hotze left Greg Abbott a voicemail requesting National Guard “shoot to kill” rioters

Patrick Svitek, Texas Tribune

In the days after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis last month, as massive protests against police brutality spread across Texas and other states, conservative power broker Steve Hotze of Houston called Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff to pass along a message.

“I want you to give a message to the governor,” Hotze told Abbott’s chief of staff, Luis Saenz, in a voicemail. “I want to make sure that he has National Guard down here and they have the order to shoot to kill if any of these son-of-a-bitch people start rioting like they have in Dallas, start tearing down businesses — shoot to kill the son of a bitches. That’s the only way you restore order. Kill ‘em. Thank you.”

The voicemail, which The Texas Tribune obtained Friday via a public information request, came on the weekend of June 6, several days after Abbott activated the Texas National Guard as some of the protests became violent. It is unclear whether Saenz responded, and Abbott’s office declined to comment on the voicemail.

A Hotze spokesperson said he was not immediately available for comment. However, several hours after the publication of this story, Hotze shared it on his personal Facebook page and another Facebook page affiliated with him.

“It’s not about race but has everything to do with the future of America — the freest and most progressive country in the world,” Hotze wrote on the second Facebook page. “It’s about those who burn homes and businesses, including those owned by African-Americans, and attack law enforcement. Enough is enough.”

Hotze’s voicemail brought a sharp rebuke Saturday from U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who called it “absolutely disgusting and reprehensible” via Twitter.

The voicemail brings into sharp relief the incendiary views of Hotze, a staunch critic of Abbott’s response to the coronavirus pandemic who has repeatedly challenged the governor’s emergency orders in court. The latest lawsuit came Friday, taking aim at Abbott’s statewide mask mandate announced a day earlier.

“This draconian order is contrary to the Texas spirit and invades the liberties the people of Texas protected in the constitution,” the lawsuit says.

In a Facebook post early Saturday morning, Hotze continued to take aim at Abbott, saying the governor’s “mask is starving his brain of oxygen.”

Hotze is one of most prolific culture warriors on the right in Texas. He is a fierce opponent of same-sex marriage and was a key figure in the 2015 defeat of Houston’s nondiscrimination ordinance — and then in the unsuccessful push for the 2017 “bathroom bill” in the Texas Legislature.

More recently, Hotze and his allies have been in the headlines for the lawsuits he has been filing amid the pandemic. Hotze sued Abbott over his stay-at-home order in April. In late May, Hotze asked the Texas Supreme Court to strike down the law that gives Abbott broad executive power to respond to disasters. And earlier this month, Hotze sued over the state’s contact tracing program.

The lawsuit over Abbott’s mask order was filed Friday in Travis County District Court.

In his home county, Hotze also suedHarris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in late April over her mask order for county residents. Abbott later gutted that order by prohibiting local officials from fining people who do not wear masks.

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