August 26, 2020 615 PM
MARFA — With the school year starting in less than a month, Marfa school officials planned to meet last week to continue ironing out coronavirus plans and precautions. But as coronavirus case counts have continued to creep up in Marfa, officials merged that meeting with one this Monday and decided — for the first time in months — to allow people to attend virtually.
It was a packed agenda, with the entire meeting clocking in at around four hours. But some of the biggest news came at the start of the meeting when Oscar Aguero, the superintendent for Marfa ISD, told the school board he was finally ready to present a draft of the school’s safety plans.
It’s been a hectic summer for officials like Aguero, who have been working for months to develop safety plans for their schools — only to have guidance from the Texas Education Agency upend those plans at the last minute. Aguero stressed that this latest plan, a draft of which was sent to The Big Bend Sentinel on Tuesday, was “a living document” that would likely continue to change.
“We’re going to talk about it tomorrow,” Aguero told the school board Monday night, “and we’re going to talk about it on Wednesday.”
As Marfa ISD figures out how to best keep students and staff safe, Aguero said school officials would have to remain flexible on details of the plan and “be ready to change [it] on a day’s notice.” But even with those caveats, officials felt it was important to get something on paper in case a student becomes infected or exposes others — a possibility, Aguero said on Monday night, where there’s a “very, very realistic chance that that will happen.”
Here’s what’s in the plan so far:
Marfa ISD plans to start school online on Tuesday, September 8, with normal hours from 7:55 a.m. until 3:45 p.m. And while virtual classes will start that day, the school hasn’t quite ironed out when face-to-face learning will begin.
Of the entire Marfa ISD plan, this is one of the topics that’s still most up in the air. Currently, Aguero said, the school plans to allow students with special academic needs to return to face-to-face instruction in the second week of school and is “considering” opening up the school to anyone who wants face-to-face instruction at that time. The plan, meanwhile, said Marfa schools may remain virtual for four weeks or even longer.
At the meeting, school board member Teresa Nuñez criticized school officials for not having concrete answers on this issue yet. “We need to hurry up, get on the ball and get our plan out there,” she said. It’s certainly true that parents who will be sending their children back to school need answers on this sooner rather than later, so that they know how long they will need to supervise their kids.
On the other hand, the school says it wants to make sure it has teacher input on this critical issue, which arguably has one of the biggest impacts on employee safety. In a phone interview on Tuesday, Aguero stressed that the plan was “still a draft” as he and other officials continue to work to gauge how school workers are feeling.
For students who do plan to attend classes virtually, the Marfa ISD plan warns, “the state’s requirements for virtual learning are significantly more demanding on the student’s daily participation.” Students must not only log into classes and participate in them, but also complete daily assignments for each class to be counted for attendance purposes.
The same truancy rules will apply for at-home students and in-person ones, and students who opt for virtual learning will receive some instruction through the TEA’s Texas Home Learning platform. The school will provide laptops and internet access “as needed” for students and will also have paper copies of instructional materials in case any students are “experiencing difficulties with technology.”
Once a family picks either virtual or in-person learning, they won’t be able to change their decision easily. The only exception, the plan says, is if a student “tests positive for COVID-19.”
Instead, the school says it will check with parents towards the start of each grading period, to reassess whether a student wants to stay in their current learning format or change. The second grading period begins on October 2, and officials ask that parents let them know two weeks before that if they do wish to change their learning option.
This summer, as schools across the state figured out their 2020-2021 academic plans, one of the biggest sticking points was whether virtual students should be allowed to join extracurriculars. Both options have benefits and drawbacks.
On one hand, it makes little sense for a student to attend classes virtually, only to potentially expose themselves at football games and other events. But on the other hand, officials have been wary to punish any families who choose virtual learning. Should virtual students be barred from the social and academic benefits of extracurriculars like robotics, music and art?
In Marfa ISD’s case, school officials decided the answer was no. Virtual students, the plan says, will be allowed to join in extracurriculars.
At the school board meeting on Monday, Aguero cited some of these added benefits of extracurriculars in the school’s decision. “It’s very hard to get certified in welding and not weld,” he said, giving one example of how virtual students might otherwise be left behind.
Whether students choose virtual or in-person learning, Marfa ISD’s plan says schools will still offer cafeteria breakfasts and lunches to everyone. Virtual students can pick up meals at “designated times,” according to the plan — though at press time, it’s not yet clear when exactly those times will be.
Still, the school is asking that students follow all safety protocols during mealtimes. That includes regular handwashing and wearing masks or face shields when picking up meals.
Kitchen staff are asked to follow the same protocols and to regularly disinfect their workspaces and other areas of the cafeteria. They’re also asked to stay home if they have any symptoms, including a temperature of 99.9ºF or higher.
Emergencies and other protocols
Students will be asked to follow all the standard coronavirus precautions, including wearing masks, physical distancing and cleaning their desks if they’re able.
Seats in classrooms will sit six feet apart, and bus riders will sit in every other seat. Beverly Dutchover, the Marfa ISD nurse, will work as the school district’s contact tracer in the event of an infection.
Some of the newest and most interesting parts of Marfa ISD’s plan, though, concern what happens once a number of students become infected. The first — Stage 1, with no infected students or staff — involves all the normal safety procedures.
At Stage 2 — that is, with up to three students infected — plans change slightly. Any students or staff with exposure will be asked to quarantine. Exposed areas will be disinfected and closed for 48 hours, and spectators for sports games must make appointments.
At Stage 3 — with four to 10 infected students — plans change more drastically. All students will shift to virtual learning for two days. Exposed areas will be cleaned and closed for 72 hours. Students in extracurriculars will have to practice social distancing if possible, will be asked to wear personal protective equipment “as much as possible” and will not be allowed to use shared facilities like water fountains. All spectators will be barred from sports games, and other visitors must RSVP.
Finally, at Stage 4 — that is, in the event that 11 or more students are infected — all students would go into virtual learning for a week. All buildings would be closed for a week for “mass disinfection of facilities and vehicles,” and school district operations (except for custodial and maintenance work) would also close.
Extracurricular events would then end for at least two weeks and possibly up to the remainder of the season. And when that week of closure ends, the school would revert not to Stage 1, but to Stage 2.