As PISD reopens after infection, teachers, students navigate drastically different school year

PRESIDIO — As the school year approached last month, Presidio Independent School District implemented a range of new safety protocols for school, from limiting student interaction to allowing virtual learning for families who wanted it. But like other school districts across the country, they quickly learned that even the best-laid plans aren’t foolproof — not least as the case count in Presidio city continued to rise.

On August 19 — just days after reopening — officials at PISD learned a high school student that tested positive for coronavirus had been on campus the day before, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. School officials shuttered all campus buildings and notified local health authorities about the incident.

Last Monday — August 24 — campus reopened after no other coronavirus cases were found among students and school workers, Superintendent Ray Vasquez said in an email this week.

“Our custodian crew always does an outstanding job of cleaning our buildings,” Vasquez added, even using a “disinfectant mist for additional safety.” And as campus reopened and sports practices resumed, he stressed school officials would continue following rules and advice from local and federal health officials, including “all CDC guidelines.”

As staff and some students return to in-person classes, they’re trying to adjust to the new normal at PISD — or at least, as normal as school can be during the middle of a pandemic.

Areli Perez is an English teacher at Presidio High School, where classes are offered in-person and online. She says students are able to attend face-to-face two days a week for four hours, with those students joining class online for the other three days. But for some students, attendance in-person can be more, including some who are there in class for “the whole week, for a full day instruction.” The full-time in-person option is especially useful for students in Presidio who do not have access to the internet in their homes.

Teaching in a remote area comes with many challenges, but in the age of coronavirus, internet accessibility is key. Internet and connection issues happen “continuously” during her instruction time, Perez said. “We have to go back and reteach and explain, or we need to be sending individual emails for clarifications.” It requires more time and individual focus for each student, even as some are no longer sitting in her classroom to learn.

For Perez, juggling the blended classrooms of in-person and online can be “kind of overwhelming sometimes.” She has to check attendance in person and virtually, make sure online students are participating, and compete for their attention. “When students are face-to-face it’s easier, but when students are online, it gets a bit complicated.” She said students at home get distracted easily, and “you have to call their attention, and redirect instruction.”

Still, she’s finding the upsides of this tough situation. “I love technology, so having the chance to implement virtual teaching strategies, new applications and new e-learning methods is interesting and sometimes more productive.”

It’s also been a tough adjustment for students like Ramon Rodriguez, a sophomore at Presidio High School. “The school is handling it pretty well,” Rodriguez said — though he stressed that in-person classes still posed “a higher risk of infection.” And when the time came to decide on in-person versus virtual school, the Rodriguez family picked the latter.

In making their decision, Rodriguez said he and his parents considered other family members who could have been most affected by the virus — especially his grandparents. “They’re the ones we’re trying to protect the most,” he said. “They’re the most vulnerable.”

Now, Rodriguez is doing his best to adapt to virtual schooling. That means accessing class materials online — though he stresses that his family’s internet connection is “very unpredictable sometimes.”

He hasn’t had as many problems with his internet lately, but he still can’t help wondering if his virtual education is as good as an in-person one would be.

“In classes, we need to do some hands-on activities,” he said. “You can’t really do that online. You kind of miss out on that learning experience.”

Like other school districts across the country, Presidio ISD has developed a range of plans to help keep students and staff safe during the coronavirus pandemic, including with the option for virtual learning. At press time, it’s unclear exactly how many students are doing in-person learning, though Presidio school officials previously said about 50% of students were slated to return.

Unlike in Marfa, students who do opt for virtual learning aren’t allowed to participate in extracurricular activities like sports. They’re also barred from some of the more hands-on and cooperative classes, including welding, rocketry, journalism/yearbook and culinary arts.

There are a range of other protections too, from eliminating water fountains and regularly sanitizing playgrounds to keeping students in the classroom. (Instead of changing classes, teachers in different subjects come to them.) And just like in Marfa, Presidio ISD has outlined a tiered-response plan for how it will respond to different levels of exposure and infection.

At Code Green, students and staff have — at most — secondary exposure to someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Those students and staff may come to school or work, but they must monitor their symptoms.

The next level, Code Yellow, is activated if those students or staff had direct exposure with an infected person. In that case, they must quarantine at home and notify school officials.

Next up, Code Orange, is for when a student or staff has a member of their household with a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis. The person must quarantine and make a report with the school, just like in Code Yellow. But in this case, other people at school are also notified of a potential exposure and classrooms and hallways and/or buildings are closed for cleaning.

The highest level of danger is Code Red — that is, when a student or staff member themselves has a positive diagnosis, as happened last month. The protocols in that case are the same as Code Yellow.

Despite all their plans and preparations, Presidio ISD hit the highest crisis level after less than a week back to school. But with sanitization efforts, many students are back in the classroom already. With Marfa ISD slated to start reopening next week, Presidio’s situation is a reminder that the dangers of coronavirus haven’t passed. Or as Presidio ISD’s “Return to School Plan” puts it: “It is not possible to eliminate all risk of furthering the spread of COVID-19.”