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 SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.