AUSTIN (Nexstar) — New polling from the Texas Politics Project asked voters whether they thought the state was headed in the right direction. Just 35% of those polls said yes, 52% said they thought Texas was on the wrong track.

“This is really an eye-opener for us,” said Jim Henson, executive director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. Henson added that the poll has tracked this question since 2009. This is the highest negative reading ever for the poll.

Henson said resurgence of the pandemic, with news of hospitals pushed to capacity with new cases of COVID-19, is a large factor in the dissatisfaction shown in the poll. But he said there’s a lot more at play, including partisan politics and failures of government and other institutions.

“It’s been a tough year in Texas. The power outages, the infrastructure failures, we could go on. I think it’s an amalgam of a lot of things that we’ve reached the watershed on,” Henson said.

The poll shows Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval rating dropping. His job performance received 41% approval, with 50% saying they disapprove of the job he’s doing.

“Governance is tough, and he’s the face of governance in the state right now,” Henson explained.

One polarizing issue highlighted by the poll is the divide over mask mandates. The poll shows 41% of Texans back Gov. Abbott’s ban on mask requirements, while 45% oppose his ban.

“I think the message is that, you know, there are very established views among partisans,” Henson said.

“You know, in cold political terms, no decision is likely to be well-received by everybody. Unless you find a way to step out of the binary politics that have set in,” Henson explained.

“The leadership in the state has clearly not done that,” Henson added.

COVID concerns rise at child care centers in Texas

After keeping her kids home during most of the pandemic, an Austin-area mom said it was time to get them back around friends and a learning setting. 

The family made the shift and enrolled their two kids under five back in child care.

“At first, when the COVID numbers were getting better, we were at a more comfortable risk level, we were comfortable with that decision,” said the mom. “What was difficult, though, was when we started to see the roadmap of COVID cases rising, that there was no change on behalf of the child care centers in terms of their protocols.”

The mom wanted to protect her family’s privacy and didn’t want to share her name but said she was concerned about the latest protocols at some child care centers including where her kids were going. 

“When I would walk in the school there weren’t, you know, parents weren’t wearing masks. There wasn’t… temperature checks, you’re walking in a hallway where multiple families were gathered,” said the concerned parent. “There just wasn’t a uniform, coherent policy and portrayal of what COVID protocol should look like.”

She found the same to be true for many of the child care centers she researched in the Cedar Park area. So, she explained she pulled her kids out until she found something her family was comfortable with during the pandemic. 

“I ended up putting one in an at-home daycare, almost in a more in a pod situation,” she said. “And then the other one in, you know, like a proper preschool. So, it’s been really difficult.”

At Mainspring Schools in Austin, they’re hearing from parents with similar concerns. 

“Some families come to us specifically, because they weren’t comfortable in the child care environment that they were in previously,” said Jason Gindele, Executive Director of Mainspring Schools. 

The school has been around for nearly 80 years and offers an early childhood education program. Gindele explained right now they have almost 400 students on a waitlist.

For about a year now temperature checks, masking, sanitizing and requiring parents to drop off and pick up outside only have been part of everyday COVID-19 protocols at the school.

Staff monitors children and if anyone has symptoms they are sent home and can’t return until they get a negative COVID-19 test.

Mainspring teacher with her class during the pandemic (Courtesy Mainspring Schools)
Mainspring teacher with her class during the pandemic. (Courtesy Mainspring Schools)

“It has been exceptionally challenging to work in this environment,” Gindele said. “We weren’t immune to seeing COVID get inside our school. And so we saw a small round in the October time frame and another small one in November. And then we’ve been clear for much of this past year up until a few weeks ago, in July, we had a few more cases of the delta variant that infiltrated our walls.”

Gindele explained in July the school had three students under 3-years-old and four vaccinated staff members test positive for the virus. 

Gindele said they closed various parts of the school depending on proximity and exposure to those who contracted the virus.

“The vaccination in our staff really kept things at bay. And our kids throughout the pandemic really haven’t been infected by coronavirus,” he said. “That’s changed all of a sudden. And so now this new variant or new variants are affecting kids, and they’re affecting staff even with the vaccination. And so for us, it means keeping our protocols in place without any relaxation of those.”

Child care providers are required by Texas Health and Human Services to report positive COVID-19 cases for both children and employees in licensed child care centers, school-age programs and before or afterschool programs.

As cases continue to increase across the state, so are numbers at child care centers, according to the data posted online.

Mainspring Schools signage posted about spreading germs (Courtesy Mainspring Schools)
Mainspring Schools signage posted about spreading germs. (Courtesy Mainspring Schools)

In June, 234 cases for both kids and employees were reported to the state. By July, the numbers hit more than a thousand cases. In August so far, positive cases have nearly tripled since last month hitting nearly 3,000 cases.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 560 children in Central Texas have tested positive for the virus and 734 employees working at child care centers.

Travis County has had the most cases in child care centers among kids and staff since March 2020 and reported 637 cases, followed by Williamson County which has had 403 cases.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) said it is closely monitoring the current situation with COVID-19. 

“The safety of those in HHSC licensed and regulated facilities, such as child care operations, is of the utmost importance to HHSC,” said Danielle Pestrikoff, Assistant Press Officer with Texas Health and Human Services.

Pestrikoff said HHSC does not currently track violations specifically related to COVID-19. “Operations that fail to meet relevant Minimum Standards (including but not limited to those related to reporting communicable diseases, notifications to parents, and health practices) are cited appropriately,” she explained. 

The Governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas has a list of recommendations for child care centers, which was updated in May and based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. It includes strongly encouraging kids age 10 or older to wear masks, intensifying cleaning and disinfection efforts and implementing screening procedures.

The recommendations also explained child care centers can add other protocols to help protect employees and kids.

Joyce Strain said she's been able to stay open because of COVID-19 protocols in place. (Courtesy Joyce Strain)
Joyce Strain said she’s been able to stay open because of COVID-19 protocols in place. (Courtesy Joyce Strain)

Pestrikoff said the checklist for child care centers is being updated to reflect the latest links. She encouraged checking out the CDC guidance on schools and child care programs, which was updated on Wednesday.

“We’ve kept everything in place as far as you know, keeping parents outside. Drop off and pickup is still continued to be outside. We still take temperatures at the door. If children have any COVID type symptoms we make sure that they cannot come in without a doctor’s note,” said Joyce Strain, owner of Hippo Learning Station in Hutto and Pathways Child Development Center in Round Rock.

Strain explained most recently, they had a handful of positive cases in late July. She said her team has been working closely with parents and gathering information through a questionnaire.

“I think for us, it’s just been more about being in tune with our parents — giving our parents of voice,” she said. “What do they feel would be best for their child? What do they want to see in place, because it’s their children that they’re having to worry about when they leave them with us.”

Strain added a big hurdle has been staffing. She said she’s hiring but it’s been hard to find qualified educators compared to before the pandemic.

“It is difficult, I still want to hire two more employees,” Strain said. “It’s not like it was before the pandemic to where I had a choice of who I wanted to hire. You know — which one would be the best one that I want at my center.”

According to the state, more than a thousand child care centers have closed since March across Texas.

An August report by the National Association for the Education of Young Children showed 86% of child care centers across Texas are experiencing a staffing shortage, with 53% of affected programs serving fewer children, and 35% unable to open classrooms.

Some parents including the mom who reached out to KXAN investigators said the state needs to do more to keep children and employees at child care centers safe and healthy.

She said most don’t even align with what school districts are doing and there is not a lot of oversight. She added all child care centers should be required to follow CDC guidance.

“The question that keeps me up at night is, you know, outside of myself, my husband, who is invested in the children’s health, I mean, there with these people eight hours a day,” she said. “Are we going to see that our state cares about this population, this extremely vulnerable population who just cannot get vaccinated? That’s, that’s really what keeps me up at night.”

Permitless carry law takes effect in Texas

Texans 21 and older can now carry a handgun in public, without having a license or taking a training course. House Bill 1927 became law on Sept. 1.

There are exceptions for felons and those under 21, and buyers will still be required to pass a background check at a gun store.

“As far as gun sales, nothing’s going to change with this law. So anyone that walks into the gun store, if they do not have a license to carry a handgun, we have to call the FBI and do a background check on them,” Central Texas Gun Works owner Michael Cargill explained the sales procedure won’t be changing for him and other store owners.

But he’ll be reminding his customers to follow through with training, even if they won’t be applying for a license and the required training that comes with it.

“We actually failed at least one person a week in our class because they don’t know gun safety. You will learn in a classroom or life will teach you by way of getting convicted of a crime getting charged with the crime or dying,” Cargill explained.

Those calling for gun reform explain that this bill moves in the wrong direction.

“Republican lawmakers promised action on gun safety after the tragic loss of life in El Paso, and middle of Odessa, not to mention all the injuries. And now we know that they are full of empty promises,” Molly Bursey with Moms Demand Action Texas said.

She’s worried this bill will lead to guns falling into the wrong hands, especially since the background check is only required at federally licensed brick-and-mortar stores.

“Many private gun sales are facilitated by meeting online. And folks can go around the background check system that way,” Bursey explained.

Gun-rights advocates point to added penalties in the bill if you’re caught carrying when you shouldn’t be, though.

“If you are a prohibited person, and you get access to a firearm, you’re looking at a third-degree felony by being in possession of a firearm when you’re not supposed to. So if they’re willing to take that chance, it’s not gonna be a misdemeanor anymore, it’s gonna be a felony,” Cargill explained.

The bill will still prohibit Texans from carrying without a license in places protected by federal law, which includes schools and airports.

Healthcare workers face risk of violent assault on the job

A couple of weeks into the new year, police were called to the North Austin Medical Center on an assault call. A man who had been brought to the hospital under a mental health hold got into a confrontation with the medical staff and punched a registered nurse in the face, according to the arrest warrant.  

Just a few months later, the Travis County District Attorney filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the patient.

The office wrote the decision was “in the interest of justice.”

It’s a scenario that plays out over and over in court records stemming from assaults on the medical staff, EMS workers, and security guards at hospitals in Austin.

Since the start of 2020, the Austin Police Department has made incident reports for more than 60 alleged assaults on healthcare workers and support staff at hospitals across the city, including Dell Seton Medical Center, St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, St. David’s Medical Center, Austin Diagnostic Clinic and Ascension Seton Medical Center.  

Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has taken over hospitals across Texas – pushing them to capacity and exhausting frontline workers. Dr. Serena Bumpus, a registered nurse and the practice director for the Texas Nurses Association, says violent assaults have always been an issue inside medical facilities but have been made worse during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has definitely caused concern for an increase in the number of workplace violence injuries because we’re experiencing longer wait times in our healthcare facilities, we have staffing shortages. And, you know, this is a period of time where families aren’t able to be with their loved ones,” Bumpus said. “There are also mental health issues that exacerbate the workplace violence incidents. Substance abuse is another reason why those occur from time to time.”

Bumpus says verbal and physical assaults on staff inside medical facilities happen daily, but largely go unreported.

“There is a mindset among the profession that this is just part of the job,” Bumpus said.

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office says often with cases dealing with assaults on healthcare workers, there are compounding factors dealing with mental illness.

In a statement, the Director of Diversion and Policy at the District Attorney’s office, Rickey Jones said, “In these difficult cases, we also have to consider whether the person is competent to be prosecuted, or can become competent and whether the person was sane at the time the crime was committed. We also consider whether there are other resources or processes that could best prevent future criminal conduct by people with unmet mental health needs.”

In the last legislative session, Texas Rep. Donna Howard, a former nurse, introduced a bill addressing assaults in healthcare facilities. It would have required hospitals to create prevention plans, track workplace violence and provide treatment for staff after an assault. The bill failed in the Senate.

“We don’t want to criminalize people that have mental health issues that create this dysfunctional behavior. At the same time, we have to protect the workforce,” Howard said. “Part of the problem is nurses see this as part of the job and have some of the highest rates of workplace violence according to OSHA of almost any profession. It’s been part of the job. They don’t report it and oftentimes the healthcare facilities have not required the reporting or kept the incident reports when they were made.”

“Part of the legislation that we proposed this last time was to put this in place so that we would have better records about what is going on.”

KXAN reached out to health systems in Austin to ask what prevention policies they already had in place and if they track violent assaults inside their facilities. Ascension Seton has not provided answers to those questions.

Baylor Scott & White Health said they have a comprehensive workplace safety program, which provides training on recognizing, preventing and reporting incidents. The hospital system said it also provides emotional support resources, but spokespersons did not provide an answer as to how or if they track violent assaults in the hospital setting.

St. David HealthCare responded to KXAN with this statement:

St. David’s HealthCare is committed to providing a safe workplace for all employees, volunteers, patients and visitors. As such, its facilities maintain a zero-tolerance policy on violence, threatening or abusive behavior, and disruptive behavior that may compromise the care environment. 

Employees must report any suspicious activity or incident to their supervisor, security staff or human resources representative. All threats are investigated, and, if appropriate, law enforcement may be contacted.

St. David’s Healthcare provides support to any employee who is a victim of violence in the workplace, including treatment, individual counseling and paid time to pursue prosecution.