Presidio ISD temporarily reverts to all-virtual classes as local schools respond to rising case counts

“I live with my grandparents, and they’re getting older and more at-risk,” said one Alpine High School sophomore. “I’m also more at risk, because I have asthma and an immune disorder. It just makes it scary to go to school at this point.”

TRI-COUNTY — As in-person-only classes continue at Alpine High School despite a rise in local cases, sophomore Julianna Cote has started a grim new after-school routine.

When she gets home, she cleans her belongings with Lysol to remove any germs that  could be lingering on them. “I live with my grandparents, and they’re getting older and more at-risk,” Cote explained in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I’m also more at risk, because I have asthma and an immune disorder. It just makes it scary to go to school at this point.”

When Alpine schools started this year, Cote decided to do virtual learning. She’d just moved in with her grandparents in Alpine, and coronavirus cases were climbing across the United States.

Like school districts across the region, Alpine ISD soon decided to cut virtual learning options, citing falling grades. But as coronavirus cases continue to grow, these sudden switches to all in-person learning have angered some families.

Protests rocked Presidio last month after the school district there announced plans to cut virtual learning altogether, as The Big Bend Sentinel and Marfa Public Radio previously reported. But on Friday — faced with a local coronavirus outbreak — the district switched to all-virtual classes until at least next Monday, December 7.

Alpine ended virtual learning options in late October. Much like the families in Presidio, Cote’s grandmother Diane Gallien, 60, was upset.

“I felt rather duped, because they said they were going to have [virtual learning] and then they took it away,” Gallien said. “I didn’t even know it was on the chopping block.”

Earlier this year, Gallien was preparing for her granddaughter Cote to move in. She spoke to Alpine ISD, who she said told her not only that local schools would offer virtual learning, but that Cote could also attend school through a state online program.

Those options were important for the family, who Gallien says deals with health complications that could make them more at risk for coronavirus. Her husband has diabetes and is overweight, while she experiences regular lung infections.

Then, Alpine ISD ended virtual learning in October. Gallien looked into online school, which she said turned out not to be an option.

To qualify, Cote would have had to attend Texas schools last academic year. At the time, Cote was still living in New Hampshire. “I can’t go back to New Hampshire right now,” Gallien said. “My husband has a job here.”

Gallien was bothered by what she said was an inconsistent response to coronavirus. Earlier in the year, people hunkered down for months in response to just a few cases.

Now cases were rising, businesses were continuing to reopen and schools seemed more uncertain than ever about virtual learning. “I think people want to get back to normal life, which I agree with,” Gallien said. “I’d like to get back to normal life, too. But with the surges, it’s a little more weighty for us.”

Across the Big Bend, schools have moved forward with plans to revert to all in-person learning despite the rise in local cases. Currently, Marfa ISD is one of the only local school districts in the tri-county with plans to retain virtual learning.

“I don’t see us going fully face-to-face,” said Superintendent Oscar Aguero. “The community isn’t wanting that.” Around 35 percent of students are currently attending virtually, he said, and the school has invited families from other districts to apply if they want to stay virtual.

Like other school officials in the region, Aguero worries about student performance. In an interview last month, he estimated around a quarter of all students were failing classes. But “while we want academic success, we don’t see it happening right now,” Aguero said. “The safety of our kids and our community is our focus.”

In Presidio, the local school district in October ended virtual learning for anyone who was missing or failing classes. Right before Thanksgiving, the school board moved to cut the online program altogether, prompting car protests, petitions and student strikes in the small border city.

Then, on Friday, the school district decided to go virtual for another week after seeing the rise in city cases, Superintendent Ray Vasquez said in an email. The news prompted cautious excitement in a group chat for families, which has been used to coordinate protests against the school. “God helped us,” one person wrote, while another stressed that “a week seems like very little time to me.”

But despite the pushback from residents — and despite the fact a Presidio ISD employee died of coronavirus last month — the district shows little signs of bringing back virtual learning as an option. The school district has said around 75 percent of remote students were failing classes.

“As always, we consult with [Presidio County Health Authority Dr. John Paul “J.P.”] Schwartz when making the best health decisions in keeping our district as safe as possible,” Superintendent Vasquez said in an email. But regardless, he said, Presidio ISD had “end-of-course” testing next week, and “we have been directed by the state that this will require students to be on campus.”

Likewise in Alpine, Superintendent Becky McCutchen said the school plans to stay open until Christmas Break. The school district currently has eight students with coronavirus and “will consider other options” if cases continue to rise. But at press time on Tuesday, Alpine ISD was still in-person.

When Alpine ISD ended virtual learning in late October, it didn’t take long for the school to find more cases.

Alpine ISD announced new cases at the schools throughout November, including on November 6, 9, 10 and 11. Then, “prior to the Thanksgiving break, we moved to remote learning for seven consecutive days,” McCutchen said in an email. “This decision was made due to the number of students/staff we had in quarantine at that time.”

In November — she doesn’t remember exactly when — Gallien, the Alpine grandparent, got a text informing her about more positive cases at school. A couple days later, she got another text encouraging her to, as she remembered it, “come out and support our football players.”

“You shut down the school, but you’re holding an event where you’re going to gather people?” Gallien said. “This is the inconsistency.”

In many ways, Gallien doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone worried about coronavirus. When she and her husband were getting ready to relocate for work in 2018, she was drawn to Texas because the state has “a lot of freedom,” including lax firearm rules. She opposes mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions, comparing them unfavorably to seatbelt laws.

“I feel like people need to be responsible for themselves,” she said. “I do believe it’s my responsibility to keep myself safe.” But the lack of virtual options for her granddaughter didn’t feel much like freedom or personal responsibility to her.

As for Cote, she’s back in in-person schooling for now. But while local school officials say that’s the better option for students, Cote has found herself easily distracted.

“It really does affect how I’m able to focus when there’s kids in my class joking around about [coronavirus] and not wearing their masks correctly,” she said. “I really don’t want to bring anything to my grandparents.”