Local COVID outbreak sparks school closure, widespread testing

PRESIDIO — Presidio students got an unanticipated four-day weekend last week when local officials noticed an uptick in COVID cases. After 41 positive cases were confirmed among the student body, parents were notified via Facebook and the school district’s website that schools would be closed for an additional day to allow maintenance staff to perform a deep clean of the buildings and to give sick students and staff another day to rest. 

When the freshly-scrubbed school buildings opened their doors on Wednesday, January 19, the line for COVID testing at the Presidio Independent School District Police Department building stretched a half mile down the road to the post office. Joel Nuñez, PISD police chief, has been leading the charge to test students, faculty and family members. He and his staff have been performing COVID tests for over a year, so they’ve seen firsthand just how quickly the virus has spread through the community. 

“Everyone’s connected to the school in some way,” Nuñez said. Student and staff tests are covered by funding from the Texas Education Agency, but the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the school district itself have pitched in to purchase additional tests to cover students’ families, local first responders and general community members. Many PISD students live in multi-generational households, so a positive student COVID test often means that a whole network of people has been exposed at home. 

The line got so busy at the PISD Police Department last Wednesday that Presidio residents driving by dropped off lunch, snacks and drinks for the testing staff to enjoy. “This is what I love about the community: everybody’s always willing to help,” he said. The treats helped ease the stress of a hard day — the numbers for that day reflected a 35% positive test rate. The Mayo Clinic reported that the average national positive rate for that day was 27.4%. 

Nuñez and his team are also partnering with the Texas Department of Health to offer vaccination clinics. Since September 2021, they’ve vaccinated 1,766 adults and 416 children in Presidio. He’s extended these efforts to more isolated areas of the county as well. In the fall of 2021, he made the 50-mile trek up the River Road twice to ensure that locals in the remote, unincorporated community of Candelaria had the opportunity to get their doses. Sixty-six adults and 35 children were vaccinated. “Right now we’re just waiting for the five month [mark] for their boosters,” he explained. 

After last week’s closure, Presidio High School Vice Principal Joe Andy Mendoza reported that despite lots of staff and students out sick, PISD was more or less back to normal. “Our campus is open — it’s running like it always has,” he said. “Right now we’re following the CDC guidelines, which states that if a student has tested positive they won’t be able to come back to school for five days. They must show a negative [test result] to come back to campus.” Additionally, the school is also offering online learning for students unable to attend school in person. 

On January 10, PISD launched an initiative called “Mask Up the District” aimed at encouraging students to wear face coverings. PISD has tried to require masks in district buildings in the past, but rescinded the mandates after a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court struck down similar school policies in San Antonio. “It’s on our website, and every parent got an email or a text with that information,” Mendoza said. 

Students and staff have grown weary of trying to continue life as normal during the pandemic. A major concern at the high school: prom is coming up in the spring, and rumors have spread that it might be canceled. “If the cases keep going up, there won’t be any prom,” said one student, who asked not to be identified. “So everyone has been wearing masks at school. It’s difficult, and it’s something we have to live with, but as a community I think we’ve been doing pretty good.” 

On Thursday, January 26, the PISD Police Department will be providing pediatric vaccines for ages 5-11 at the Presidio Elementary School gym from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. From 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. they will administer booster shots for vaccinated individuals at the PISD Police Office. Residents wishing to participate in the clinic are encouraged to call 432-229-1164 to make an appointment. “Presidio ISD doesn’t require anybody to be vaccinated, but we really want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to get it if they want it.”

Students, staff, and community members are encouraged to call the PISD Police Office at 432-229-1164 for testing and vaccination appointments and information. The name of the student and staff member quoted in this story have been withheld for privacy.