Schools cut back on virtual learning as tri-county sees rising cases, falling grades

“As cases have increased, we’ve put more people in buildings,” said one Presidio parent and teacher. “I don’t understand the logic.”

TRI-COUNTY — Faced with rising reports of failing grades and truancy, many local school officials are deciding the cost-benefit of virtual learning just isn’t working anymore. It’s a problem seen across the state, as schools struggle to keep people safe while also keeping up student grades.

But as schools across the region have reopened, local health officials have cautioned that in-person classes will likely increase coronavirus spread. The region has already seen at least one outbreak linked to a public school, after 10 students and staff at Marfa ISD were confirmed to have the virus last month. Presidio ISD has also seen at least 16 cases.

In an email to parents on Tuesday, Marfa ISD Superintendent Oscar Aguero announced the district’s latest case, an employee on both the high school and elementary campuses. “We ask that you, as always, watch for symptoms of COVID-19,” he wrote.

Then, on Wednesday, the school found three more confirmed cases involving two employees and a student. The school district will close through at least next Monday, November 16.

Last month, Presidio ISD became one of the latest local school districts to scale back virtual learning. On October 21, the school board voted to send students who were missing or failing classes back to in-person school. There is also talk of sending all kids back later this month.

“Our administrative team has been reviewing remote learning,” Superintendent Ray Vasquez wrote in a letter to parents, and decided “that the concept of remote learning has not been successful for the majority of our students.” Students who are passing classes and meeting attendance guidelines will still be able to attend remotely for now, as will those with a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis or contact.

Vasquez did not respond by press time to requests for comment, including questions on what percentage of students are currently back in in-person classes. In the letter to families, Vasquez said more than 40% of students were “failing one or more classes,” indicating that a significant proportion of the student body will have to return to in-person school.

Ethel Barriga, the school board president, and Velva Saenz, the vice president, likewise did not respond to requests for comment by press time. But Alfredo Muñiz, who serves as the board’s secretary, said the board hoped to improve student performance and attendance with the change.

“Like other districts, we’re at a point where we think it’s time to get our kids back” in school, Muñiz explained. Along with school officials across the region, Muñiz and others in Presidio had decided virtual learning wasn’t doing enough to serve children.

Presidio ISD is hardly the only school to make this decision. The same night Presidio ISD voted to scale back virtual learning, the school board in Alpine voted to eliminate it all together.

Other school districts in the region are reaching the same decisions, as Marfa Public Radio previously reported. Fort Davis ISD and Valentine ISD also canceled virtual learning options last month.

In Alpine, 98 students were attending remote instruction when the school board voted to end virtual learning. Of those, 85 have returned to in-person learning at Alpine ISD while the rest are finding other remote learning options like homeschooling, Superintendent Becky McCutchen said in an email on Monday.

Despite the uptick of cases in Alpine, McCutchen said that new cases in the city all appeared to be community spread rather than school-related. Since Brewster County no longer has a health authority, the school has been doing its own contact tracing, McCutchen said.

Still, she stressed that Alpine ISD is taking precautions and that school officials just didn’t feel virtual learning was working anymore. “The decision to end remote learning as a voluntary option was made for many reasons,” she wrote, “the main reason being the learning gap that was continuing to grow.”

Erik Zimmer, the city manager of Alpine, said he agreed with the school’s decision. “Performance was down, truancy was up and the wellbeing of students was at-risk,” he said. “I think they absolutely made the right call.”

Zimmer pointed not only to academic performance but to issues in students’ personal lives, from mental health issues to abuse at home.

“We don’t like to talk about how many kids are abused or neglected at home,” he said. And for those kids, “school is their safe space.”

But as case counts continue to rise in the tri-county, the changes are proving controversial with parents, students and staff, including in Presidio.

Presidio ISD’s tracker shows 16 active cases at the school district, but it’s unclear what exactly that number measures, and the tracker states it was last updated on October 11.

Presidio ISD has announced at least four coronavirus cases since then. In a notice to parents, PISD said that a positive diagnosis for an elementary school employee was “directly connected” to a “cohort of positive cases” at the school.

Irvin Olivas, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Presidio ISD, estimated he’s seen about five extra students in each class since the district ended virtual learning for struggling students. But it was hard to tell for sure, he said, because some students were still missing school due to coronavirus diagnoses or contacts.

Olivas and his wife, who also teaches at the school district, decided to unenroll their three children from Presidio ISD and instead enroll them in a state home-learning program. “I just don’t feel comfortable with the cases that have occurred,” he said.

Olivas said he understood why school officials were worried about falling grades and attendance rates. But as he saw it, the students struggling before COVID were the same ones struggling now. He wasn’t sure in-person learning would make a difference, especially given all the other disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.

“As cases have increased, we’ve put more people in buildings,” Olivas added. “I don’t understand the logic.” And with struggling students only able to work from home if they had a coronavirus contact or positive test, he worried that the school’s approach was “100% reactive” rather than proactive.

Others in the city share Olivas’ concerns. John Ferguson, the Presidio mayor, argued that it was pointless to focus on bringing up student grades if doing so meant exposing their families to contagious disease.

“Our first and foremost priority needs to be getting through this pandemic with people staying healthy,” he said. He acknowledged that students in Presidio were struggling but stressed the city needed to prioritize safety and “regroup after we get things under control.”

Malynda Richardson, the Presidio EMS director, also worried about the increased risks associated with returning to in-person schooling. She thought schools should first be trying other strategies to bring up grades.

After all, she noted, many Presidio residents have comorbidities, many students live in multi-generational households, and children aren’t exactly known for their hygiene. “Maybe Presidio ISD is doing everything they possibly can, but what happens when those kids leave school?” she said. “Are they taking those precautions? Kids normally feel like they’re invincible.”

In Marfa, Superintendent Oscar Aguero said Marfa ISD had no plans to cancel virtual learning. Instead, the district has been offering to enroll students from districts across the region where virtual learning has been cut.

“Right now, the community is saying that’s not what they want,” Aguero said of cuts to virtual learning. But in the case of some students who are struggling with grades or absenteeism, the district is “highly recommending” that parents send their students back, he said.

Marfa ISD is facing the same challenges as other school districts, with around a quarter of the student body currently failing classes. But Aguero said the school is trying other approaches to bring those grades up, including home visits and calls to family.

Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority in Presidio County, acknowledged that students in the region are struggling. But at the same time, he was blunt about the risks of sending all kids back to school.

“If your parents are dead, it doesn’t matter whether you made good grades that semester or not,” he said. “Right now, schools can’t reopen safely.”

He thought schools were caught in a tough position as they try to keep students both safe and educated while also navigating state and federal guidelines. He called it an “impossible task,” and said schools are asked to meet “goals that are not realistic to begin with.”

Earlier this month, TEA once again updated its guidelines, requiring schools to seek an attestation if they want to end remote instruction for individual students rather than a whole school or whole grade level. Dr. Schwartz argued that throughout the coronavirus crisis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other state leaders were playing politics in an effort to quickly reopen schools. “They have not been able to have even a remotely coherent policy, other than we need to get our schools back open,” he said.

Like Mayor Ferguson, Dr. Schwartz thinks local leaders need to prioritize public safety, at least for now. He acknowledged that students and businesses across the country — including his own health clinic — are struggling with the effects of the pandemic. But at the same time, the growth of coronavirus is approaching “exponential” levels. “Our case numbers are going up,” he said, “and they’re going to go up more.”

As case numbers spike across the country, Dr. Schwartz said residents need to keep sacrificing. And if schools decide in-person classes are absolutely necessary, he thinks they should first cut back on possible transmission risks, including contact sports.

“This is not going to win me any friends, but I don’t see how you can distance safely and smash into somebody else and huff and puff,” he said. “I don’t see anything coming out of the CDC on how you can safely play football.”