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Arizona Cardinals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) reaches for an incomplete pass as Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) defends during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday in Arlington.


U.S. schools adapt as virus cases surge
Schools adapt for return from break as COVID-19 cases surge
  • Updated

Mask requirements are returning in some school districts that had dropped them. Some are planning to vastly ramp up virus testing among students and staff. And a small number of school systems are switching to remote learning — for just a short while, educators hope.

With coronavirus infections soaring, the return from schools’ winter break will be different than planned for some as administrators again tweak protocols and make real-time adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic. All are signaling a need to stay flexible.

“Change has been the only constant in this fight,” Newark Schools Superintendent Roger León wrote in a notice to parents before break. He announced Thursday that students will learn remotely for at least the first two weeks of the new year. The virus, León said, continues “to be a brutal, relentless and ruthless virus that rears its ugly head at inopportune times.”

Long after the widespread closures in the pandemic’s early days, school and elected leaders say they are using the lessons and tools of the past two years to try to navigate the latest surge without long-term shutdowns, which had woeful effects on learning and students’ well-being.

Still, pressure from parents and teachers unions has added to the urgency surrounding safety measures as the omicron-fueled surge sends up caseloads and puts children in the hospital in close to record numbers.

“They say kids do well (if infected), but who’s to say my kid is not going to be that one,” said Rebecca Caldwell, who is considering petitioning her Charleston, Illinois, district for a remote option that would let her keep her four sons, ages 17, 10, 7 and 5, home through the winter.

The first half of the school year brought Caldwell’s family three scares from exposures. One, from a family member, kept the whole family in quarantine for 10 days. Her 17-year-old and 10-year-old saw classmates infected, and each underwent a nerve-wracking series of COVID-19 tests as part of a more recent “test-to-stay” policy.

“It’s really scary because you worry about the domino effect, too,” said Caldwell, whose own health issues led her to leave her restaurant job more than a year ago to lessen her risk.

In the nation’s largest school system, New York City, 2 million at-home test kits provided by the state will be used to increase testing following the break, officials announced this week. Students whose classmates test positive can keep coming to school as long as their at-home tests are negative and they don’t have symptoms.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City educators, questioned whether the new testing initiatives will be available in every school by the time schools reopen Monday.

“We are moving closer to a safe reopening of school next week. But we are not there yet,” he said.

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, officials announced the purchase of 100,000 laptops over the holidays in case they are needed for remote learning in January, though district leaders said they hope to avoid a system-wide closure. The Chicago Teachers Union has proposed pausing in-person learning unless new safety measures are introduced, including negative COVID tests for returning students.

Los Angeles health officials last week announced tightened testing and masking rules for all employees and students when LA County public and private schools return to campuses on Monday. Concerned by a spike of the Omicron variant, the county health department mandated that teachers must wear medical grade masks in class and students and staff must wear masks outdoors in crowded spaces. Schools will have two weeks to comply.

To help keep as many students in school as possible, the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona endorsed test-to-stay in December as an alternative to the previously recommended 10-day quarantines. Hundreds of schools have adopted test-to-stay policies for students who have had contact with an infected classmate.

“The goal remains to keep all schools open for in-person learning five days a week throughout the 2021-22 school year and beyond,” Cardona said in a message to schools marking the halfway point of the academic year. He said 99% of schools were open in-person in December, compared with 46% last January.

Out of more than 13,000 school districts nationwide, relatively few have announced plans to start remotely after winter break.

Like Newark, those districts generally plan to resume in-person instruction within a couple weeks. They include Cleveland, Ohio; Prince George’s County, Maryland; Mount Vernon, New York; Taos, New Mexico; Chester County, South Carolina; and several New Jersey school systems.

Citing the city’s high infection rate, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti on Friday extended the winter break for nearly 50,000 students through at least Jan. 5 and urged them to get tested through the district. Tests are required for employees.

Ronald Taylor, superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood School District in New Jersey, said a spike in cases and subsequent quarantining heading into the break had disrupted operations by forcing consolidation of classes where there weren’t enough staff. He said the district would be remote the first week back.

“Like many other school districts, we have seen a consistent trend, after each of our school breaks, both Thanksgiving and our fall break in early November, there has been a sharp increase in our student/staff population of COVID cases,” he said.

Masks also will make a return in some districts after break, including Hopkinton High School, the first Massachusetts public school to lift the mandate, in October. It was reinstated just before break.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where one in four people was testing positive for the virus, the school system announced Thursday that all employees, volunteers and visitors will be required to wear face coverings at schools and facilities, and students will be strongly encouraged to wear them. A state law prevents school districts from imposing mask mandates for students.

Some school systems are moving toward requiring vaccinations for students, but not anytime soon. In the Los Angeles school district, which was among the first to announce mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for students, a Jan. 10 deadline for students 12 and older was postponed until fall of 2022. Officials said the earlier date would have barred about 27,000 unvaccinated students from campuses.

The District of Columbia on Dec. 22 said all students, whether in public, private or charter schools, must be fully vaccinated by March 1.

Much about the omicron coronavirus variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta, and it is expected to become dominant in the U.S. by early 2022.

In Ohio, where hospitalizations for COVID-19 hit a record high this week, the Ohio Hospital Association is asking schools statewide to consider mandatory mask wearing as cases continue to spike.

The patchwork of responses also includes Woodbury, New Jersey’s plans to bring students in for half days for the first week, sending them home with lunch so they don’t have to remove masks in the building to eat.


Local
Local experts offer tips to follow through on New Year's resolutions
  • Updated

According to a 2021 study, about two-thirds of people abandon their New Year’s resolutions within a month. The study also found most resolutions involve either diet or exercise and people tend to make the same resolutions year after year.

For others, resolutions at the start of a new year are something more meaningful, said Maliakaia Bunbury, East Texas community health worker for the Children’s Defense Fund of East Texas. In her profession, Bunbury dedicates herself to helping people of her community. This upcoming year, she’s setting a goal to help herself.

“I started smoking when I was about 19,” she said.

What began as a social thing eventually grew into a habit. Two children later, Bunbury considered quitting smoking but failed multiple times. After her last pregnancy and health complications that were revealed, Bunbury knows it’s now necessary for her health to completely quit.

“Normally after I smoke I just feel sluggish. I just feel down, I don’t want to do anything,” she said.

Her motivation and how she’s holding herself accountable? Her children.

“I would never be able to forgive myself if something happened to them and their health due to my negligence,” Bunbury said.

First, Bunbury identified her triggers and began to substitute the habit with other things, such as going for a walk, going to the park with her children and chewing gum.

“So far, I’m going to go into the new year without having had a cigarette,” Bunbury said. The clean slate, she said, feels refreshing.

East Texas professionals in finance, fitness and mental wellness have some tips on how to break the statistics and follow through with each goal throughout the year.

Financial goals

Elva Estrada, community banker, commercial lender and former branch manager at a Tyler bank, specializes in commercial lending, building relationships with people in the community to help them in almost every area of their financial lives. From a mortgage loan to making connections to fulfill financial needs, she also specializes in small business lending. In her role, Estrada works to penetrate within the Hispanic community to help those wanting to start new businesses and also helps, guides and gives advice on what banks look for when it comes to lending money.

Estrada first recommends learning about what online banking tools each institution offers to take full advantage of them. Through this year, Estrada said one thing she called a “huge win” for her customers is having automatic deposits and payments toward a savings account.

“Customers will set up a certain dollar amount, on a monthly, weekly or bi-weekly basis and they’ll have it automatically transferred to their savings or money market account,” she said. “Using the online banking tools your institution provides you will be a huge plus when wanting to make financial goals.”

Personally, Estrada said instead of spending five dollars on a cup of coffee, she transfers from five to $10 a day to her savings account, which becomes a small allowance for the week.

“Having weekly habits and staying consistent is definitely key,” Estrada said. “It’s the little things that make a big difference. I can’t stress that enough.”

Another tip Estrada said has helped her and her customers is what she calls, “Save away from you” to hold yourself accountable.

“I won’t have access to my savings account through my online banking to where I’m able to withdraw from it. I have to physically go to the bank and take money out of the account, so that… keeps me in check, whether I really need to withdraw that money,” she said.

When it comes to sticking to your financial goals and seeing them through, Estrada said having willpower is key, and added she’s a firm believer in “staying hungry and staying humble” for growth desired.

“Regardless of whatever you’re doing, if you stay hungry to be your very best at what you’re doing and your profession, a lot of the time, management is going to see that. What that would turn into is an opportunity of higher pay or acknowledgment, and in return, you get that pay increase,” Estrada said.

This was the case for her this year, as Estrada was recently promoted.

“I wanted to continue to better myself. Ultimately, that turned out into a promotion and opportunity to grow. Just stay humble and thinking about the end goal is always such a huge factor,” she said.

Estrada said if you find yourself giving up on your goal, try again.

“We’re going to mess up. We’re not going to be perfect. The key there is to always try, always do your best… Life is full of second opportunities. There’s nothing written down that you can’t start over,” Estrada said.

Personal wellbeing

When it comes to having guidance and motivation, East Texas life coach Skyla Bradley said it’s about doing what you do better. In her practice, she empowers her clients to get to their goals and provides extra assistance to help others walk down the path of success with long- and short-term goals.

“It’s identifying where you’re at, where you want to be and how we set measurable goals along the way,” Bradley said.

First, for resolutions, she recommends setting goals and focusing on three to five things you want to change. Bradley said a goal must be SMART, meaning it must be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Otherwise, it ends up being a wish and never gets accomplished, she added.

Unrealistic goals, Bradley said, can make a person feel defeated and will take away the desire to set goals.

“A lot of people, maybe they get a membership that first week in January, but gyms are empty come February, and if you set an unrealistic goal, ‘I want to lose 50 pounds in three months,’ that’s unrealistic, so you’re going to feel defeated in that first month that you haven’t lost 30 pounds,” she explained.

Bradley also recommends reaching out for help.

“We are designed for the community. Connect with a friend, mentor, coach or counselor to support you to go from where you are at to where you want to be,” Bradley said.

Get active, she also recommended. Whether that’s a book, workout group, volunteering, “a parked car can’t change directions,” she said. “Go do something and adjust along the way.”

“It’s a journey. You don’t end up here overnight, whatever your situation is, and you’re not going to get to where you want overnight either,” she said.

Lastly, she recommended taking it one day at a time.

“Life happens and frequently is outside of our control. Give yourself grace, adjust and keep moving forward. Consistency over time gets you to where you want to be,” Bradley said.

Fitness and diet

Cassandra Gann, personal trainer at Fusion Athletic Club in Lindale, talked about health and fitness goals, which according to a new study by Statista, are the most common New Year’s resolutions.

First, Gann said to surround yourself with a support system and friends who stay active and are willing to hold you accountable. For her clients, she recommended it’s not about a diet mentality, but a lifestyle mentality.

“That’s when the magic happens. Old habits die hard,” she said.

When it comes to setting those health and fitness goals, Gann also recommended the SMART goal method, beginning with small goals. With her clients, Gann starts nutritionally, specifically, with breakfast and water.

“Breakfast starts your day right. We do set the tone for our day. Hydration has so much to do with so many things that happen within the body,” Gann said, adding that everything begins at the cellular level. If a person is dehydrated, cell membranes are hard and nutrients bounce off, Gann said, adding that if cell membranes are hydrated, nutrients can get in better.

For keeping a healthy weight, Gann recommends what most personal trainers don’t. She said eat.

“Make sure you get the nourishment in. Make sure you eat your veggies,” Gann said.

Gann’s favorite breakfast when she’s short on time is waffles, made by blending egg whites, rolled oats and cinnamon.

She added cutting out sugar and processed foods will help maintain or lose weight. Her personal recommendation to anyone is to lift weights for resistance training three days a week and cardio, five days a week. In general, moving your body is important, Gann said.

“Exercise or do something active five days a week. It could be a walk around your neighborhood,” she said.

Gann added that changing your lifestyle for the new year begins with small things to do to change that. She recommends the five-second habit, which is counting down from five when you have an instinct to act on a goal.

For example, packing lunch ahead of time, scheduling workout times and putting your gym bag in your car.

Gann said many gyms have offers for free training and classes, from yoga, to CrossFit, Zumba classes or just working out, she recommends to find what you like the most, and sticking to that.

Last but not least, Gann said not to focus on negativity, and to always keep a positive mind.

“Love your body right where you are. Things do well with love. God didn’t make any junk. You are beautiful,” she said.


Snow storms and pandemic ground flights, delay holiday's end
  • Updated

Wintry weather combined with the pandemic to frustrate air travelers whose return flights home from the holidays were canceled or delayed in the first days of the new year.

More than 2,500 U.S. flights and more than 4,100 worldwide were grounded Sunday, according to tracking service FlightAware.

That followed Saturday’s mass cancellations of more than 2,700 U.S. flights, and more than 4,700 worldwide.

“It was absolute mayhem,” said Natasha Enos, who spent a sleepless Saturday night and Sunday morning at Denver International Airport during what was supposed to be a short layover on a cross-country trip from Washington to San Francisco.

Saturday’s single-day U.S. toll of grounded flights was the highest since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staffing shortages on increasing COVID-19 infections among crews.

A winter storm that hit the Midwest on Saturday made Chicago the worst place in the country for travelers throughout the weekend. About a quarter of all flights at O’Hare Airport were canceled Sunday.

Denver’s airport also faced significant disruptions. Enos, who was flying on Frontier Airlines, didn’t learn that her connecting flight home to California was canceled until she had already landed in Denver. Then it was a rush to find alternative flights and navigate through baggage claims packed with stranded and confused travelers, amid concerns about the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19.

“It was a lot of people in a very small space and not everybody was masking,” said the 28-year-old financial analyst. “There were a lot of exhausted kids and some families were so stressed out.”

In Michigan, the authority that runs Detroit International Airport said crews were working around the clock to remove snow and maintain the airfield. Atlanta’s airport authority advised travelers to arrive earlier than usual because of high passenger volume, potential weather issues and pandemic-fueled staffing shortages that could lengthen the time it takes to get through security gates.

And thousands of miles from the closest snow storms, Hawaiian Airlines said it had to cancel several flights between islands and across the Pacific due to staffing shortages.

Southwest Airlines said it was working to help customers affected by about 400 flights canceled around the country Sunday, about 11% of its schedule. The Dallas-based airline anticipates even more operational challenges to come as the storm system pushes into the Eastern seaboard.

Delta Air Lines said Sunday it was issuing a travel waiver for planned flights this week out of mid-Atlantic airports in Baltimore and Washington in preparation for forecasted winter weather.

American Airlines said most of Sunday’s canceled flights had been canceled ahead of time to avoid last-minute disruptions at the airport.

SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, grounded nearly 500 flights Sunday, about 20% of its schedule, according to FlightAware.

Airlines have said they are taking steps to reduce cancellations caused by workers affected by the omicron variant. United is offering to pay pilots triple or more of their usual wages for picking up open flights through most of January. Spirit Airlines reached a deal with the Association of Flight Attendants for double pay for cabin crews through Tuesday, a union spokesperson said.

Airlines hope that extra pay and reduced schedules get them through the holiday crush and into the heart of January, when travel demand usually drops off. The seasonal decline could be sharper than normal this year because most business travelers are still grounded.

___

AP Airlines Writer David Koenig contributed to this report.


Capitol Riot
Capitol rioters' tears, remorse don't spare them from jail
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — Florida business owner Robert Palmer cheered on the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 before he joined the fray. Screaming obscenities, he hurled a wooden plank and a fire extinguisher at police officers trying to ward off the mob.

Nearly a year later, Palmer fought back tears when he faced the federal judge who sentenced him to more than five years in prison. He said he was “horrified, absolutely devastated” by what he had done.

“I’m just so ashamed that I was a part of that,” Palmer told U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Dec. 17 before she gave him the longest prison term for any rioter so far.

Judges are hearing tearful expressions of remorse — and a litany of excuses — from rioters paying a price for joining the Jan. 6 insurrection, even as others try to play down the deadly attack on a seat of American democracy.

The Justice Department’s investigation of the riot has now entered the punishment phase. So far, 71 people have been sentenced for riot-related crimes. They include a company CEO, an architect, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, a gym owner, a former Houston police officer and a University of Kentucky student. Many rioters have said they lost jobs and friends after their mob of Donald Trump loyalists disrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

Fifty-six of the 71 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building. Most of them were sentenced to home confinement or jail terms measured in weeks or months, according to an Associated Press tally of every sentencing. But rioters who assaulted police officers have gotten years behind bars.

With hundreds of people charged, the Justice Department has taken heat for not coming down harder on some rioters, and it has failed to charge anyone with sedition or treason despite hints early on in the investigation. But lower-level cases tend to be easier to prosecute and typically get resolved before more complex ones.

At least 165 people have pleaded guilty so far, mostly to crimes punishable by a maximum sentence of six months. There are dozens of cases involving more serious offenses still moving through the system. More than 220 people have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement officers at the Capitol, according to the Justice Department. Since November, three of them have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from more than three years to just over five years.

The District of Columbia federal court is overloaded with Jan. 6 cases. More than 700 people have been charged so far and the FBI is still looking for more. Among the most serious charges are against far-right extremist group members accused of plotting attacks to obstruct Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election. Their cases haven’t yet gone to trial.

The rioters’ refrains before the judges are often the same: They were caught up in the moment or just following the crowd into the Capitol. They didn’t see any violence or vandalism. They thought police were letting them enter the building. They insist they went there to peacefully protest.

Their excuses often implode in the face of overwhelming evidence. Thousands of hours of videos from surveillance cameras, mobile phones and police body cameras captured them reveling in the mayhem. Many boasted about their crimes on social media in the days after the deadly attack.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson said then-President Trump’s incendiary speech on Jan. 6 “stoked the flames of fear and discontent.” But she told Russell James Peterson, a rioter from Pennsylvania, that he “walked there on his own two feet” and must bear responsibility for his own actions.

“No one was swept away to the Capitol. No one was carried. The rioters were adults,” Jackson said before sentencing Peterson to 30 days’ imprisonment.

Eighteen judges, including four nominated by Trump, have sentenced the 71 defendants. Thirty-one defendants have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment or to jail time already served, including 22 who received sentences of three months or less, according to the AP tally. An additional 18 defendants have been sentenced to home confinement. The remaining 22 have gotten probation without house arrest.

A seemingly genuine display of contrition before or during a sentencing hearing can help a rioter avoid a jail cell. The judges often cite remorse as a key factor in deciding sentences.

But Chutkan told Palmer that she couldn’t tell if his remorse was genuine.

“I can’t look into your heart or your mind,” the judge said. “The way you conduct your life after this case is going to speak volumes about whether you are truly remorseful.”

Anna Morgan-Lloyd, the first rioter to be sentenced, told Senior Judge Royce Lamberth in June that she was ashamed of the “savage display of violence” at the Capitol. A day later, however, the Indiana woman told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that people were “very polite” during the riot, that she saw “relaxed” police officers chatting with rioters and that she didn’t believe the Jan. 6 attack was an insurrection.

Her inconsistency didn’t escape Lamberth’s notice. In a footnote to an order in another case, the judge said his “hopes have been recently dashed” when Morgan-Lloyd’s Fox interview “directly conflicted with the contrite statements that she made” to him.

Dona Sue Bissey ‘s case is one of only six in which prosecutors agreed to recommend probation without home detention. But instead, Chutkan sentenced her to 14 days in jail. The judge questioned whether Bissey, 53, of Indiana, truly was remorseful because she bragged about her participation in the riot.

“There must be consequences for taking part, even a small part, in a mass attempt to stop the certification of the presidential election and prevent the transfer of power,” said Chutkan, who was nominated by President Barack Obama.

All eight of the Jan. 6 defendants sentenced by Chutkan have received jail or prison terms. In all but one of those cases, the sentence that she handed down was stricter than prosecutors’ recommendation.

In contrast, all four rioters sentenced by Chief Judge Beryl Howell received three months of home detention after prosecutors recommended jail terms. Howell, also an Obama nominee, questioned the Justice Department’s “muddled approach” in resolving cases with misdemeanor pleas despite using “scorching strong language” to describe rioters’ actions.

She said it was “almost schizophrenic in some ways” for prosecutors to recommend a three-month jail sentence for a Tennessee man, Jack Jesse Griffith, in a court filing that referred to rioters as “those who trespassed.”

“No wonder parts of the public in the United States are confused about whether what happened on January 6th at the Capitol was simply a petty offense of trespassing with some disorderliness or shocking criminal conduct that represented a grave threat to our democratic norms,” Howell said during Griffith’s Oct. 28 sentencing, according to a transcript.

The judge who sentenced Boyd Camper to 60 days’ imprisonment for a misdemeanor offense said the Montana man’s presence in the mob “helped create the momentum for violence” and provided safety for violent rioters even though he personally didn’t attack law enforcement officers.

“Violence is an unacceptable way to resolve political differences,” Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly told Camper.

Some judges have rejected prosecutors’ recommendations for prison sentences. Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump nominee, said it is “almost unheard of” for first-time offenders to get jail time for nonviolent misdemeanors. Howell questioned why a short jail term for riot defendant Glen Wes Lee Croy, without a longer term of court supervision, would be the best way to ensure that the Colorado man “stays on a law-abiding path.”

Many other prominent cases remain unresolved. Dozens of people linked to extremist groups have been charged with conspiring to carry out coordinated attacks on the Capitol, including more than 20 defendants tied to the anti-government Oath Keepers and at least 16 connected to the far-right Proud Boys.

At least five people associated with the Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty. At least one Proud Boys member has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. None of them has been sentenced yet.

Approximately 20 trials are scheduled in 2022. Meanwhile, judges are plowing through daily dockets of guilty pleas and sentencings.

Anthony Mariotto, a Florida man who was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine, said he “got caught up in the moment” but knows he broke the law by entering the Capitol.

“I was hoping that they would just pause the election,” Mariotto said during his December sentencing. “I wish Joe Biden, President Biden, would have won by billions of votes. None of this would have happened.”

Judge Reggie Walton dryly replied, “He won by 7 million.”

___

Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland, Billeaud from Phoenix and Whitehurst from Salt Lake City.


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