Presidio ISD goes remote, nixing plans to cut virtual learning

PRESIDIO — As coronavirus cases have risen in Presidio, and as the local school district has steadily rolled back virtual learning, families in the city have for weeks protested and written petitions urging the schools to keep at-home learning as an option.

Now, with local case counts still on the rise, the school district has gone all-virtual for the rest of the semester.

The news was announced in letters to parents and staff on Friday. The district also canceled all sporting events and other extracurricular activities. Presidio schools on Friday had a total of more than 20 active cases, according to a school coronavirus tracker.

In his letter to staff last week, Superintendent Ray Vasquez said it was “in the best interest of our students and staff to have the district continue with our virtual learning for the rest of the semester.” He cited the growing number of cases in Presidio and said the decision was “made from an abundance of caution to help slow the potential spread of covid-19.”

At least for now, Vasquez wrote, the school plans to return to all in-person learning at the start next semester on January 5. The Presidio school board in November voted to allow the phasing out of virtual learning, citing the fact that a majority of remote students were failing classes. Previously, the board had also approved the elimination of virtual classes for students who were struggling with truancy or bad grades.

When reached for comment this week, Vasquez said the district made the decision in collaboration with Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County. Asked whether protests by parents and staff had factored into the decision, Vasquez did not respond directly but instead said school officials were acting of “an abundance of caution.”Vasquez did not respond to a request for comment by press time. Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County, has advised the school district on its pandemic response.

In previous interviews, and again in an interview this week, Dr. Schwartz has stressed there isn’t solid evidence that the school is contributing to coronavirus spread in the city. But as cases and deaths in Presidio have continued to rise — including with the death of a Presidio ISD bus mechanic last month — he said he and school officials had decided to revert to virtual learning as a precaution.

“We’ve agonized over this for weeks and weeks,” Dr. Schwartz said. But ultimately, they decided it was safer to keep the schools virtual.

For many parents in the border city, the news came as a relief. Tensions have spilled over in recent weeks, as families have criticized the school for taking away virtual learning options and otherwise not being fully transparent with residents.

At a virtual PTO meeting last week to discuss upcoming testing and other issues, some community members complained about what they said were inadequate precautions and communication. One parent, Josie Burrola, complained that her son had become infected after contact with a school employee and that school officials “never let us know anything.”

“How do we expect for y’all to notify us if one of the students test positive,” Burrola asked, “When you didn’t follow protocol with one of my sons?” Hevila Ramos, the Presidio High School principal, suggested that they set up another time to “talk about it a little more privately.”

Dr. Schwartz said that “rumors” about the school, including that a deceased school employee had contracted the virus at work, were causing some residents to point fingers. The school had become a scapegoat for the local outbreak, he said.

“All these people are blaming the school for the problem,” Dr. Schwartz said. “The schools are doing 10 times what everyone else is doing.”