AUSTIN, Texas — The parents of dozens of young Texans can go to work knowing someone like Maria Castañeda is taking care of their little ones. As a child care worker for Angel’s Care and Learning Center in Austin, Castañeda strives to make sure these kids are learning and growing in the best and safest way.

“I come from a big family, I've always been around nieces, nephews, cousins, and I do enjoy looking out for them. You just got to love them, really,” she said.

Spectrum News 1 caught up with Castañeda one morning when she was reading a book to a group of 3-year-olds and facilitating an activity aimed at boosting their literacy skills. Even though Castañeda is considered an essential worker, only recently did she become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine under Texas guidelines. The state prioritized frontline health care workers, Texans 65 years and older, and those with preexisting health conditions. 

Recently, the Texas Department of the State Health Services notified vaccine providers they can administer doses to those working in schools, head start and early start programs, as well as child care facilities. This comes after a federal directive from the Biden administration urged states to expand eligibility to educators and child care workers, noting they “hold jobs that are critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential occupational risk of exposure” to the coronavirus. 

Castañeda was worried about losing her job early on due to closures, but feels protected now that the provider has reopened with rules in place. For example, they require masks for everyone over the age of 6, take temperatures, monitor symptoms of children, and limit the number of people allowed in the building. Castañeda said they are also sanitizing as much as possible, and the teachers do not take their masks off inside the classrooms. They have been going outside to drink water or eat, she said. 

“I feel really safe here because we do as much as we can to keep the room clean and sanitized. We take a lot of safety protocols and COVID protocols,” Castañeda said.

Chuck Cohn has owned and operated the child care center since the summer of 2018. He believes teachers and child care providers should have been earlier in the vaccine distribution process. 

“We put our teachers into that environment because they play such a critical role in the community. We felt like it's good that teachers get those head of line privileges so that they can rest more comfortably at work while they're doing the work of our community, knowing that they're going to go home and they're going to be safe,” Cohn said in an interview with Spectrum News 1.

At a recent briefing, Imelda Garcia, associate commissioner for the DSHS Division for Laboratory and Infectious Disease Services, was asked why the state did not include certain essential workers in the state’s Phase 1A and Phase 1B vaccine distribution. Garcia said the state expert vaccine allocation panel decided to prioritize the populations that were overwhelming hospitalized or had severe outcomes. 

“At the end of the day, we followed the data, and the data is where we landed with our 1B population,” she said.

Garcia also addressed why Texas has one of the worst vaccination rates per capita in the country. She said DSHS is communicating with congressional leaders and federal health officials to make the case for more doses in Texas. That way with more supply, more Texans can get vaccinated, she said. 

“We know that CDC is using older data that has us with a lower adult population than what is currently estimated now, and so we have shared that information. They have heard us; we have yet to actually see them make a change from using 2018 to 2019 census data,” Garcia said.

The statewide mask mandate will be lifted in just days, but Cohn said he is not going to be any less vigilant with their health procedures and face recovering requirements. Cohn said their policy now also requires families to let them know if there has been exposure to COVID-19.

“Personal responsibility, obviously, is something that I think all people regardless of political affiliation would agree is an important aspect of being a Texan, being an American” he said. “As an engineer myself, I can interpret trends and graphs and to me, it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to back off of those COVID protocols right now. So we're going to keep them until we believe that it's scientifically prudent to back off,” Cohn said.

The increase of vaccine supply to Texas offers optimism and the center will work to get employees vaccinated as quickly as possible as they continue caring for Texas children. Angel’s Care and Learning Center tries to work with the whole family when it comes to connecting them to the right resources and accepts children regardless of their socio-economic background.

“It's all about them, so what's really important to this school is their education, for them to not struggle later on,” Castañeda said.