New school semester, same old COVID

WEST TEXAS — Schools returned to session this month, entering their third semester marked by COVID-19. As students, teachers and staff prepare for new lessons, familiar hurdles have already risen once again in Marfa, and in the tri-county’s one university, precautions are in place to avoid bringing holiday-related outbreaks back to the Big Bend.

After only a week back in the classroom, Marfa Independent School District swung its doors shut and returned to digital classes this Monday as Superintendent Oscar Aguero informed employees, students and parents that an employee that goes “throughout the building” had tested positive for COVID-19.

“In the abundance of caution, we are going to go remote at 12:30 today,” Aguero wrote Monday, “and remain remote through Wednesday. Classes will resume on Thursday morning.” Along with the staff member, a student tested positive – though they had been attending remotely and were not present on campus any of the six days the school was open.

Like Alpine ISD, the school nurse in Marfa has begun offering testing with a 15-minute turnaround, and has already tested several individuals this week.

At Sul Ross State University, classes began this Monday, but only virtually. “The first two weeks are remote learning, no face to face until the 25th,” said Michael Pacheco, the chief of staff in Sul Ross’ office of the president. Even when face-to-face begins, it won’t be wholesale. “A lot of classes are online, and some classes do have an in-person component,” Pacheco said. Depending on their registration, some students may not visit campus much at all.

By taking the first two weeks completely online, Pacheco said, “We’re doing it a little different to help combat the situation and make sure the community here at large is safe.” The school is hoping that if a student was positive over the holiday, the initial remote education will “give them time to test at home” and “stay at home for an additional two weeks,” Pacheco said.

Some things aren’t different though, Pacheco said: masks are mandatory, folks on campus will be expected to keep a physical distance and the school will continue to offer testing.

Sul Ross State University is currently procuring its tests from Curative, and when testing is available, they release a “blast email” that goes out to all faculty, staff and students, letting them know when it will be available. It’s first come, first served, but Pacheco said there are plenty of tests available and “anybody’s welcome who’s a current Sul Ross faculty, staff or student.”

In both Marfa and Sul Ross, school officials are watching the enrollment numbers fluctuate in the early weeks of the school semester and waiting for more concrete data about enrollment, and how many of those students will ultimately attend in-person or virtually. Enrollment is looking up at all Sul Ross campuses this year, though final numbers won’t be confirmed until the add/drop period ends.