Students, teachers and parents at MISD find a new normal

Bryan Torres, a senior at MISD, right, spends time with his brother, a pre-K student at MISD, left. Photo courtesy of Bryan Torres

MARFA — Imagining the rest of his time at Marfa High School, senior Bryan Torres thought he would be “coming back from spring break, having fun and having a normal graduation.” But the hope of a return to normalcy for Marfa ISD students, teachers and parents was dashed this week when Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced public schools, private schools and higher education institutions will be closed at least through the end of the semester.

Marfa ISD first announced a temporary closure last month due to the coronavirus. Cheri Aguero, a Montessori teacher for 18 fourth, fifth and sixth grade students, said, “At the beginning it was really very scary because most everything in my classroom was hands on. The other thing I was so worried about was losing contact, touch with them. I wanted to make them feel okay and that we were still here.”

This past Tuesday, Aguero says the class celebrated their first digital birthday. Birthdays are always a big deal in her classroom, where the class and parents take time to celebrate the student’s life. The first one online needed to be special too. She had students secretly prepare signs ahead of time, and surprised the birthday student by having his classmates all show their signs together on Zoom.

When the school initially closed, Aguero immediately instituted Zoom calls that gather her students –– twice a week the full class meets, and on the other days, various students meet with Aguero for reading groups. She is incorporating lessons from the art, music and PE teachers to keep kids active during the day, and she has given assignments to help students process the changes and understand why the schools are closed.

“I see my students every single day, even if it’s just for 20 or 30 minutes. Then, I’ve crazily made myself available by email, phone, texting, any way I can get a hold of kiddos and they can get a hold of me,” she said, “for when they need to say ‘I didn’t understand that, Mrs. Aguero.’”

MISD parent Sarah Martinez said so far, her two kids are getting along okay. “They get on their Chromebook, login, see what they need to do and sit down and do it,” she said.

But Martinez said it is tough when her kids aren’t understanding their work and don’t have a teacher there to help. “The only time it’s stressful is when one of them is confused or stuck on something, and I can feel their anxiety or stress because they can’t ask their teacher, and their teacher isn’t right there,” she said.

Though Martinez said she’s blessed to have kids who motivate themselves, she can’t be of much help when her 9-year-old daughter is struggling. “I can help a little but when it’s like, ‘Where’s the link?’ I can’t help with that,” she said, speaking about the technological challenges as well as the differences in instruction from when she was in school herself. Particularly, the way math is taught in Texas has changed drastically over the past few decades, putting parents at odds with being able to help their kids.

Martinez works for the county, and while her older son, who attends Alpine Montessori, can stay home, she’s currently bringing her daughter to the office with her now that school is out. Daycare isn’t an option in Marfa either, so some parents with students suddenly at home are forced to figure out how to balance work and homeschooling.

Aguero and other teachers in the school have stayed in contact with parents about how to help their kids along. “Some of the kids are choosing to sleep in and work later in the day, others are up and emailing me in the morning. You have the personality differences and the ones whose parents are there with them and the ones who aren’t.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and Aguero is accommodating students by setting all of their class meetings later in the day.

Aguero said, “The first week was really chaotic because I didn’t know how to do anything. It was about us learning as we went.” A month into it, “We’ve worked through the kinks.”

The technological challenges have been a learning experience for many as they have been forced to rapidly adjust to the digital classroom. But another change due to coronavirus is giving some relief: the statewide STAAR testing has been canceled for the year.

“It releases the pressure from the kids. They still were asking me, ‘Mrs. Aguero, are they going to give the STAAR test in the summer?’ That is how stressed out they get about the STAAR tests,” she said. “It’s finally released them from that and it allows me more of an opportunity to broaden things, I don’t have to be so uber focused.”

While the students will still learn testing skills, the teacher says “it just doesn’t have to be on the test’s schedule” anymore. And with the technological learning curve, Aguero said, “All of the energy I would use to make sure they were getting the test-taking strategies, is now translated to how to use the technology.”

Students receive their assignments digitally, and are finally hitting a rhythm of working from home. Helping along the way was Big Bend Telephone, which set up hot spots for students to access the internet if they didn’t have it already. The FCC even recognized the company for going “above and beyond.”

An older student like Torres, the senior, says he gets his work done with ease. He’s at home with his mom, freshman sister and pre-kindergarten brother while his dad works at Village Farms. In the mornings, the house is bustling as they all do their work.

“Even my little brother has his assignments. He’s learning how to spell,” Torres said. In fact, the senior finishes his work early so he can help his little brother. “I’m kind of his little tutor. Out of all of this, I think the younger kids are the most affected, because the first years of school are the fundamental ones. I’ve been trying to do my best for him to not get off track so he’s not behind once he starts kindergarten.”

Torres said he misses sports the most –– he plays football, basketball, cross country and track. But he’s also no longer able to do ballet folklorico or student council.

“It’s been a pretty crazy year,” he reflects. Even before seniors lost their prom, senior activities and last few months spent in the halls of Marfa High together due to coronavirus closures, their homecoming game disappeared when their competitors dropped out at the last minute.

“It’s pretty sad staying home. I keep in touch with my friends through the phone, but not as much as I wish,” he said. “It’s pretty hard not being with them. Even though I’ll stay in touch with my classmates, I’m friends with underclassmen too. These were my last days with them, and that’s thrown out the window now.”

The seniors are holding out hope for a graduation if Governor Abbott allows it. Seniors like Bella Morales are hopeful that if they push back the date, they’ll be able to get together for graduation, and not have to limit attendance to immediate family.

“Sadly, I kind of think, ‘Why our class?’ but things happen. This is just a little barrier along the way, and as a class we’re going to overcome it. It’s kind of like a little glimpse that in life, not everything is easy, and we have to adjust,” said Torres. “Earlier this year our opponents canceled for our homecoming game. We overcame it, we found solutions, and that’s what we’re going to do with this, find solutions.”