How school districts are preparing for first day of class as COVID makes comeback

illustration by CrowCrumbs

PRESIDIO COUNTY –– As the highly-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus sweeps across the state, school districts in the county are gearing up to hold the first in-person classes of the school year.

Despite the increase in hospitalizations and infection rates throughout Texas from the new variant, Governor Greg Abbott has prohibited school districts from implementing a mask mandate on campus, for both students and staff.

“Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities. We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up,” the governor said in regards to his executive order back in May.

As it stands, there will be no virtual class offerings at Marfa Independent School District where school is set to begin on August 16. In theory, the district could switch over to virtual classes, but Superintendent Oscar Aguero says it’s too expensive to make the switch. “As of right now, the state will not fund virtual classes,” he said. “We won’t have the ability to have teachers designated just for virtual. And it’s too hard to do both. It would almost be impossible for us funding-wise and to allow our teachers to do the job they need to be doing.”

Since vaccines are not being offered to people under the age of 12, Aguero is recommending all students ineligible for vaccination –– as well as those who haven’t received the vaccine –– wear a mask while at school. Aguero estimated there are between 125 to 140 kids below the age of 12 at the school district.

“To my staff, I’m recommending that they all wear masks, but again they have that choice,” Aguero said. “And then to all kids, especially 11 and under, to wear masks.”

If a student refuses to wear a mask in class, Aguero said that the district cannot reprimand them in any way. “We can recommend that they wear it, but we can’t force them to wear it,” he said.

Yet, Aguero is hopeful that students will comply with his mask recommendations. He said, “Our community has been really good about it. Last year the kids totally understood it.”

Despite not being able to enforce a mask mandate, the district will be practicing as much social distancing as possible. “Traditionally we do breakfast in the cafeteria,” Aguero said. “But elementary breakfast will be in the classrooms again this year. That way we don’t have 100 kids in the cafeteria.”

In classrooms, teachers will orient the desks to all be facing the same way and dividers will be installed as well to prevent the spread of the disease, Aguero said. The district will also disinfect the building daily.

At the beginning of summer, the Marfa ISD School Board voted to only offer face-to-face instruction for the upcoming year. At the time, vaccines were becoming more readily available and infection rates were dropping significantly within the county. The school board was further spurred to sanction in-person classes after Aguero announced that five teachers would part ways with the district if they would have to provide a mixture of online and face-to-face instruction.

Overall, Aguero feels like his hands are somewhat tied thanks to Abbott’s executive order. “I’m a big believer in the mask. So if we could mandate it, we would. I’m not going to hesitate on that at all,” he said. “We’re not out of danger. We’re not out of the situation. And the only way we are going to eliminate this is to be vaccinated and wear masks.”

Many of the same measures are being put in place over at Presidio Independent School District, where the first day of school kicks off on August 11. Superintendent Ray Vasquez said that he encourages all staff and students to wear their masks, as the district will only provide in-person learning for the upcoming school year.

“Presidio ISD facilities will undergo a heightened-disinfection protocol that includes the use of an electrostatic machine, daily frequent cleaning, especially high-touch surfaces. Hand sanitizer will be available at all PISD facilities,” Vasquez said in an email.

Vasquez added that around 90 percent of district employees are fully vaccinated and that there are currently no positive COVID cases in the district. He said, “On Monday evening, August 2, 2021, we had a ‘Back to School Meeting’ with all Presidio ISD parents. We want to reassure our parents that we are doing everything possible to keep our students and staff safe, while providing students with a high quality of education.”