Presidio ISD charts its course as worried parents, teachers await coming school year

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Irvin Olivas knows a lot of teachers. He and his wife both work as instructors at Presidio Independent School District, where the couple has three children — one elementary student and two middle school students.

He also has teacher friends in other districts, and they sometimes talk about what plans the state has in store for them. He’ll ask friends what they’re hearing from TEA and the governor, or vice versa — but no one knows.

“It’s the same for them,” Olivas said of the general sense of confusion permeating many Texas schools right now, including those in the tri-county.

At Marfa ISD, ever-shifting guidelines and a lack of information from the Texas Education Agency have left administrators scrambling to prepare for next school year.

The situation is much the same in Presidio — or, for that matter, pretty much any of the 1,247 school districts in Texas, which together serve more than five million students. “We are still waiting for TEA for more definite reopening guidance,” Superintendent Ray Vasquez said in an email earlier this month.

Still, like school officials everywhere, Vasquez and other administrators at Presidio ISD are trying to iron out details as the school year fast approaches. And so far, they’ve come up with a plan that’s quite similar to Marfa’s.

The school plans to reopen, but it also plans to allow virtual learning for parents who worry about sending their kids to school, Vasquez said. And — just like Marfa decided to do at a school board meeting this week — Presidio will incorporate mask requirements into his dress code, to further encourage the safety practice.

But as with schools across the state, new guidance continues to come in from TEA and the situation on the ground continues to change. “Things are constantly changing,” Vasquez emphasized in an email this week. “What we say today, can/may change tomorrow.”

Jose “Pepe” Acosta has an 11th grade daughter in school. “We are nervous,” he said of the prospect of her returning to classes during a pandemic. “Everybody’s nervous.”

Still, he stressed that he trusted the school and thought “there shouldn’t be any problems.” After talking to his family, they’d decided to send the 11th-grader back to in-person classes.

Other parents aren’t so sure, though — among them, Irvin Olivas and his wife. After talking to their three children, they decided to stick to virtual learning.

“You’re going to have students sick in your classroom the entire day,” he told his kids. And while he understood why some kids wanted to return to “something normal,” with the pandemic still raging, he didn’t think that was possible. “They’re not going back to what we know of as a school day,” he said.

As a parent, teacher and city council member, Olivas has seen the pandemic from all sides. He pointed out that Presidio leaders had tried to impose emergency measures — including a mask ordinance — only to have Governor Greg Abbott later overturn local rules.

“I’ve been critical of Abbott,” Olivas said. He noted that when Texas had just around 30 cases in March, schools across the state shut down.

He thought it was strange that — now that there are more than 300,000 cases — state officials were determined to “reopen the schools and send the kids in.” He didn’t understand the logic.

“To me, it’d be best if we just did it from home,” he said. “Let the students stay home.”

Presidio ISD, Olivas noted, is already well-situated to do virtual learning. “We’re very fortunate to have a great tech director,” he said. “He’s already pushed me to do a lot of this stuff.”

He is partial to the web-based learning program Pear Deck — though he added that other teachers at school use other programs. Still, he noted, accessibility for some students is an issue. Though the school did give out computer devices to all kids, some kids don’t have internet at home — especially the kids in far-flung areas like Redford and Candelaria.

Presidio ISD has been calling parents in an effort to do a rough census of how many parents plan to send kids back. And in another parallel with Marfa, those numbers are also split about 50/50, said Cruz Tovar, a middle school counselor who has helped make those calls.

Like school workers across the region, Tovar was wary about returning to a regular school year. “I love the kids,” he said — but he worried that sometimes, school workers focus on learning and “we forget about their safety and well-being.” And he worried about “bringing so many kids to school when we can’t guarantee their safety and well-being.”

On a personal level, Tovar was also worried. “My wife is pregnant at home,” he said. “I have a concern that she’s at home safe — and yet here I am, being exposed to circumstances that I’d rather not be in.” In other words, what was the point of his wife taking precautions if he might come home and infect her, anyways?

One big question still on the table — not only in Presidio, but also in Marfa — is what exact situation will trigger a school shut down. At a Marfa school board meeting this week, officials said they were still ironing those details out.

One issue is that there are just so many possible scenarios. If one kid gets sick, what about their siblings in other classes? And what about teachers and parents who might have been exposed to them? Katie Price Fowlkes, Marfa school board president, has suggested Marfa ISD could develop a flow chart, to help make sense of these range of possibilities.

Last week, TEA put out more guidance — confirming to The Texas Tribune that schools could shut down if they were ordered to do so by local health officials. In the case of Presidio County, that would be Presidio County Health Authority John Paul Schwartz, who would need the sign-off of County Judge Cinderela Guevara, according to Oscar Aguero, the superintendent for Marfa ISD.

Schwartz, for his part, isn’t too enthused with the idea of in-person classes. “The whole idea is to prevent, and not wait until something gets so bad that you have to act.” He didn’t think Presidio County should “wait until it’s evident that [coronavirus] is spreading.”

“At that point,” he added, “it’s too late.”

Still, Schwartz did acknowledge there were some benefits to in-person learning — particularly in Presidio, where many far-flung students didn’t have internet at home. And like other details around next school year, the situation is still developing. It remains to be seen what Schwartz will ultimately decide, or what other curveballs TEA might throw.

Rogelio Zubia, a counselor and the new principal of the middle school, is feeling good about the next year. With schools across the region taking precautions, he believes Presidio ISD can manage the coronavirus situation.

“I’m not going to say nobody’s going to get sick,” he said. But with the precautions, “I’m thinking [school] will probably be the safest place in town.”

As a counselor, Zubia said he was focused not just on keeping kids safe, but on making sure they don’t feel so uncertain or anxious that they can’t effectively learn. The structure at Presidio ISD, he thought, should help alleviate those problems.

Zubia pointed to his own experience from the start of the pandemic. Working as a licensed professional counselor, he’d at first wanted to switch to providing his services through telemedicine. He was wary about going to work at a doctor’s office for something he felt could be done virtually. But by taking precautions, he stayed safe.

In other words, he’d stayed safe and overcame his anxieties with a mix of stoicism and caution — and Zubia thought Presidio parents, students and teachers could benefit from these perspectives. “I have asthma, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be one of the first ones to get sick,’” he said. “But if we practice everything the experts recommend, we’re going to be okay.”