Coronavirus measures, and a teacher retires: This week at the Marfa school board

MARFA — At a socially-distanced school board meeting in the Shorthorn Gym on Monday night, school officials discussed a range of topics, from staff pay to how the school district is preparing for possible coronavirus outbreaks.

Speaking to the board, Superintendent Oscar Aguero offered proposals for what precautions the school would take. But he said officials would have to wait to iron out those details, noting that he was joining a call with the Texas Education Agency on Tuesday — the next day — about that subject.

Little came out of that TEA meeting, despite climbing coronavirus case numbers in Texas. Instead, Aguero told The Big Bend Sentinel, the TEA commissioners told him and other school officials that they will have to wait until next week for more guidance on coronavirus precautions.

Only one concrete decision came out of the meeting: the TEA will not require students to wear face coverings or other personal protective equipment. “It makes it difficult for us to plan,” said a frustrated Aguero.

Coronavirus measures

With students out of school and the 2020-2021 school year fast approaching, Marfa school officials are still waiting on TEA guidelines to determine what school will look like in the fall. At the board meeting, Superintendent Aguero offered a range of suggestions, including creating “dual classroom” set-ups (so that there would be a sanitary extra classroom if a student or teacher came down with coronavirus) and making hallways one-way to prevent crowding and congregating.

Still, the TEA has said that if schools do return to in-person classes, they will need to give each student 45 square feet of space — a feat that could be difficult, given Marfa ISD’s old classrooms. “We may have to do half days,” Aguero said. But Allison Scott, the new Marfa High School principal, worried that if parents had children in multiple grades, such guidelines could leave them “running back and forth” to pick up and drop off children.

The school is trying to balance concerns with public safety with those for education. It hasn’t been easy. “For the majority of the kids, I know distance learning isn’t the best way for them to learn,” Aguero said. “Especially the younger ones.” And he said the school district has a duty to “ensure equitable instruction.”

The school district settled on August 10 as a tentative start date. The proposed schedule has about two weeks of “bad weather days” built in, in case the school needs to temporarily close. The school district is hesitant about having summer schooling, with Aguero citing “all the outbreaks.” But the issue might be a moot point: Marfa summer school is typically only for “test retakers,” Aguero said, and TEA this year waived its standardized testing requirements.

Meanwhile, on-site athletic workouts started up again on Wednesday, said Linda Ojeda, the district’s athletic director. The workouts will only be outdoor cardio workouts and for the time being will not involve any indoor strength training, she said. Students will be required to bring their own workout supplies like water bottles and towels — though Ojeda said she was urging students “to minimize the amount of things that we’re bringing from one location to this location.” Students will not be allowed to use locker rooms and will be barred from joining workouts if they experience any coronavirus symptoms or have contact with a patient.

Money matters

On Monday’s agenda were a number of financial topics. Among them were proposed changes to the school district’s tax collection rates. But Aguero asked the board to table that discussion until later, and the school board agreed.

Aguero also proposed — and the school board accepted — a proposed 2% pay raise for the elementary principal, the athletic director and all supportive staff, which includes everyone from bus drivers to custodians. The new high school principal was excluded from that proposal because she is a new employee with a new contract. As superintendent, Aguero was also excluded. So were teachers, who already have regular raises built into contracts.

School board members were largely in support of the move, citing increasing costs of living and the coronavirus pandemic. “I say we give them a raise,” said board member Teresa Nuñez. “They’ve done a lot.” She added that school workers had “all stepped up” during the coronavirus pandemic and that the board should “do our part to say thanks to them.”

There was also a discussion of employee health insurance. The plan school workers had during the 2019-2020 school year was cancelled, Aguero said. He presented the board with two alternatives, one that would cost $4,000 more per year for the school district than the previous plan, and one that would cost an extra $10,000.

Aguero urged the board to choose the latter, saying it offered far better options for school workers. Ultimately, the school board agreed.

“There was more choice of doctors,” Aguero said in a follow-up call on Tuesday. “That was the biggest thing for me,” especially given the limited medical resources in the region. Better yet, the second plan offered staff better options for going out-of-network.

Honoring teachers

Sara Tandy, a (mostly) 5th and 6th grade teacher at Marfa Elementary School, has taught in Marfa since 2016 and had a previous stint at the school in the mid-2000s, Aguero said. But on Monday, she told the school board she was retiring.

“This little school consists not only of highly qualified teachers,” Tandy told the board, “but of people who actually enjoy their job and are willing to work hard.” Marfa Elementary School Principal Amy White presented Tandy with a YETI cooler as a parting gift. The school typically gives rocking chairs as presents to retirees, but Tandy said she preferred a high-quality cooler. “‘I’m not going to be sitting on my porch like an old lady’ is kind of what she said,” Aguero explained.

Marfa ISD also regularly holds an end-of-year luncheon to debrief, catch up and honor all employees who have served at the school district for five, 10, 15 or 20 years. But given the coronavirus pandemic, this year “unfortunately we can’t do that,” White said.

In lieu of in-luncheon honors, White gave The Big Bend Sentinel a list of veteran workers at the schools. Valerie Valerio has now been at Marfa ISD for 2o years, while Maria Medrano has served for 15. Armida Villarreal has been at the school for 10 years. Cheri Aguero, Eliza Barton, Joshua Kelly, Mayra Marquez, Socorro Mena, William Thornsburg, Jose Salgado and Gerardo Ureste have now all served for five.