State launches school coronavirus tracker as schools reopen, see cases

A scene from a meeting between Marfa ISD administrators and parents in July, where school officials outlined their plans for safely reopening schools. Photo by Maisie Crow.

MARFA — On Monday, as some Marfa students returned to in-person classes for the first time since March, Superintendent Oscar Aguero joined them on the bus ride to school. Riding on a school bus isn’t an unusual occurrence for Marfa school officials, Aguero said in a phone interview this week. “We try to do it several times a year.”

But as coronavirus continues, even school bus rides are different. “It was added support for the bus driver,” Aguero said of this week’s ride, plus “making sure kids knew where they were at.”

They opened all the windows, to make sure students would get adequate ventilation.

Bus seats are now assigned. “Normally we don’t assign seats for kids,” Aguero said, “but that’s something we wanted to do this year.” Students at the earlier bus stops sit in the back of the bus, so that students won’t pass each other as they get on and off.

Like other schools across the state, families at Marfa ISD can choose whether to send their kids to in-person schooling. Around 35% of students at MISD are currently choosing to stay virtual, according to the latest figures from this week, with many of those parents citing health concerns. But other parents have to return to in-person jobs themselves — and even if they don’t, many teachers and parents also worry about a lack of social and educational stimuli with at-home learning.

Families who were sending their kids back originally planned to do so last week — but then Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County, advised them to hold off. “Dr. Schwartz felt we were having a spike,” Aguero told The Big Bend Sentinel last week, citing those conversations.

Marfa ISD pushed back school another week, to this Monday — putting its schedule for in-person classes well behind others in the region. Many other school districts opened in early-to-mid-August, including Alpine ISD, Presidio ISD and El Paso ISD. Sul Ross State University also reopened around the same time, with students moving into dorms on August 21 and the first classes starting on August 24.

In some ways, Marfa ISD’s late start has been a benefit. More time allowed school officials to continue fine-tuning school safety measures, which they regularly do at board meetings. It gave teachers, parents and students a chance to prepare themselves.

But the extra time also let Marfans observe how reopening was going at other schools — and in that respect, the delay has been a little disconcerting. After all, in both Alpine and Presidio, cases at schools have already prompted brief closures.

It happened in Presidio first, with the school closing August 19 after learning a high school student who tested positive had been present the day before. They reopened on August 24 after disinfecting the campus.

On Monday, Alpine ISD released a statement informing parents that students at Alpine High School could have been exposed to someone with coronavirus and that they were switching the campus to remote learning for 14 days. Then, on Tuesday, they said they’d identified another on-campus case from before classes went virtual, bringing the count of school-related cases to two.

“Every situation is unique when a positive case is identified,” Alpine ISD Superintendent Rebecca “Becky” McCutchen said in an email on Tuesday. State health officials are contact tracing the cases, she said.

At Sul Ross State University, 29 students were considered active cases at press time — a small proportion of the 1,496 students that Sul Ross gives on its campus coronavirus tracker. But that number of positives has steadily crept up, and the school is currently reporting 35 students in isolation — almost half its current isolation capacity of 80.

In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, the university said it was testing “at least twice a week” and so far had tested more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff. Students with positive results are moved into quarantine, the school said, as is anyone who had direct contact with positive people.

Then, there’s the view across the state in Texas. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees education in Texas and is requiring public schools to reopen, has partnered with the Texas Department of State Health Services to launch a coronavirus tracker for those schools. The purpose, a TEA spokesperson said, is to “maintain a level of transparency between school systems and their communities” and to people (including state officials) making “future decisions on how to keep school populations healthy while supporting students’ educational needs.”

So far, that data — which goes through the week ending on September 13 — doesn’t show huge numbers of cases coming from schools. Of the more than 1,000,000 Texas students who have returned to in-person public school classes, around 2,300 — or about 0.2 percent — have been confirmed to have coronavirus. The figures are similar for teachers, with around 2,200 school-staff members, or closer to 0.3 percent, confirmed to have the virus out of a total staff count of around 800,000, some of whom have likely not returned to school. (Unlike its student tracker, which only includes students who have already returned to in-person classes, the TEA’s staff tracker includes the total number of staff.)

But with some districts like Marfa ISD just starting in-person classes — and with other major districts like Houston ISD not returning to face-to-face instruction for weeks — that number will likely continue to climb. TEA says they plan to release district-level data through their tracker, though at press time, they haven’t done so yet. That data could show important trends, like whether these cases are coming from across the state or from just a few badly hit districts.

Still, with coronavirus spreading across Texas, there are no easy answers. The state has added 22,285 cases in the past week. Health experts have warned that schools could see outbreaks, especially if numbers start to climb in the broader community — but education experts have also warned about the need for students to see friends and teachers again.

At a school board meeting this week, both Aguero and Luane Porter, a counselor, outlined some of the emotional challenges facing students and teachers. Aguero told teachers to be on the lookout for signs of abuse in students. After all, he pointed out, some kids had likely been stuck in abusive home situations since March, when schools in Texas first closed.

Porter, meanwhile, asked that teachers check in on each other during what’s been a stressful and scary transition back to work for some. “Some teachers come back and are completely fine,” she said. But others, she said, might be struggling with self-care.

Aguero is trying to stay optimistic as students, including his own two kids, return to school. Students, he says, are taking health measures like mask-requirements seriously — a fact he attributes to a generally serious approach to coronavirus across Marfa.

“They’re doing it at Porter’s,” he said of students wearing masks. “They’re doing it at restaurants. All these protocols are just flowing into the school.”

At the same time, Aguero is trying to be a realist. And watching the situation at other school districts and across Texas, he and other administrators have concluded that Marfa ISD will almost certainly be forced to close due to cases, just like has happened in Alpine and Presidio. “It’s not if,” he said, “it’s when.”

The school has tried to do as much as it can for student safety — including releasing a video last week welcoming kids back and outlining protocols, which students watched from at-home classes last week. But Aguero says there’s plenty of other safety factors that he and other administrators can’t control. “The problem is bigger than just what happens in the school.”