HISD's new dashboard will track active COVID-19 cases. Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Greater Houston parents have an important date circled and marked on their calendars: October 19. That's the day Houston Independent School District welcomes students back for in-person instruction at all schools.

However, a major point of concern and contention with area parents is the possibility of fellow students contracting, carrying, and spreading COVID-19. To that end, the district has announced a new COVID-19 dashboard to keep the community informed about the impact of the pandemic. Parents can view the COVID-19 dashboard here.

The online dashboard launched Monday, September 28, to track the number of confirmed COVID-19 students and staff cases on campuses, in an effort to display transparency, according to a press release. As of September 28, some 23 active cases are reflected on the dashboard, out of more than 222,000 students and staff.

HISD's new dashboard was developed using Texas Education Agency guidelines for reporting COVID-19. It will be updated daily, allowing users to review student and staff data by location and districtwide, according to the district. The dashboard will also include a map to clearly illustrate and mark active cases throughout the district.

All applicable privacy laws relating to the release of personal health information will be followed, according to a press release.

"As we navigate this pandemic together, we want to ensure that we are transparent as we provide crucial updates," said HISD interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan, in a statement. "This new dashboard will give our staff members and families the information they need in an accessible and easy-to-use way to make informed decisions."

For more information on HISD's reopening plan, visit the official site.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Kids in need will receive 2,000 new computers. Photo courtesy of Pixlr

Houston kids connect to $1 million in new computers thanks to local nonprofit

helping hand

As the global pandemic and hurricanes and tropical storms pester the Greater Houston area, a greater emphasis is being placed on online learning for local students. Now, to ensure there is less of a limited digital divide, a local nonprofit has made a significant gift to the Houston Independent School District.

The Moody Foundation announced a grant of $1 million to HISD for the purchase of more than 2,000 computer devices. The grant will cover devices for pre-K through fifth-grade students in the district's Achieve 180 schools, which have been designated as underserved and underperforming HISD feeder pattern communities, according to a press release.

Such a grant is pivotal in a time when data shows Texas leading the country with the widest digital divide among students and teachers. According to research from the distinct, some 35 percent of HISD 209,000 students lacked internet at home, while another 40 to 45 percent lacked a computer device. Meanwhile, per the distinct, thousands of impoverished students still require devices.

The Achieve 180 students scored lower than non-Achieve 180 students at the Approaches Grade Level on STAAR, per HISD. Reports show that these students were also less engaged during remote learning.

"The pandemic has only further magnified the digital divide," said Ross Moody, trustee of the Moody Foundation. "The Moody Foundation has a long history of supporting early childhood education to build opportunities for student success. Everyone deserves and should have the same level of access to education."

Since the onset of COVID-19 in March, the foundation has granted over $10 million in COVID-19 funds to more 100 nonprofits and schools in Houston, Galveston, and Austin.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Even in light of community concerns, HISD is moving forward on its pursuit to receive a District of Innovation designation. Getty Images

Houston school board votes in favor of moving forward with innovation designation

moving forward

In the Houston Independent School District's board meeting on Thursday, May 14, the board of trustees voted in favor to begin a process that would designate HISD a District of Innovation.

The ruling allows HISD to begin the process of receiving the DOI designation and to join the almost 900 other Texas school districts with the designation, which would be implemented for the 2021-2022 school year.

The designation would allow for several exemptions from state law, including beginning the school year earlier than the fourth Monday in August, allowing flexibility in attendance requirements, and allowing for non-accredited teachers to conduct Career and Technical Education courses.

Before the HISD board discussed the motion and voted, they heard from community members who expressed concern with this particular accreditation matter during the meeting's call for community speakers. Due to COVID-19, the speakers wrote in their concerns, which were then read for the board.

Andrew Dewey, executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, asked the board to oppose the motion as the exemptions allowed by DOI aren't in themselves innovative, he says.

To allow for non-accredited CTE instructors, "the district would have to be exempted from the entire section of the law requiring certification," writes Dewey. "That action would open the door for future administration and school boards or board of managers to allow non-certified teachers in other content areas."

Several other community members voiced this concern over allowing non-accredited teachers, and another concern was timing of the motion. A few community members argued that now is not the time to pursue the DOI designation — and Trustee Elizabeth Santos of District I echoed that concern.

"Our students deserve better than to have something shoved down their throat when there's a pandemic, and we should be solely focusing on safety and instruction," Santos says in the meeting.

Trustee Anne Sung of District VII made a motion to push back voting on the matter to the board's June meeting, but the motion was struck down in a 3-6 vote. Moving forward, Sung called for the district to proceed with caution on the accreditation of teachers.

"I want to say publicly that in the plan I will be looking for extreme rigor in protecting certification in our teachers," Sung says in the meeting.

Now that the motion has passed, it has allowed HISD's Superintendent Grenita Lathan to push forward on the DOI designation. The district's next move is to create a planning committee and collect the community's concerns on the process.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.