Marfa Students Have Returned To School. What Does That Look Like This Year?

By Stephen Paulsen, The Big Bend Sentinel

MARFA — Late last month, seniors at Marfa Independent School District participated in a years-long tradition as they painted North Gonzales Street in front of the school to commemorate the next academic year. But as students and school officials grapple with a range of new coronavirus precautions, it’s unlikely this fall semester will look like previous ones.

Nor did this year’s street-painting look like ones from previous years, which — as per tradition — typically ends with a paint fight. There were no paint fights this year, as officials did their best to keep students distant.

“It was both good and bad,” John Aguero, an incoming senior, said of this year’s street-painting. On one hand, after months of virtual learning in spring semester — followed by a long summer — Aguero said it was nice to see people he hadn’t seen in months.

On the other hand, “You can’t go and talk,” Aguero said. “You can’t get close to each other.” And while he saw some classmates he would have liked to catch up with, “you don’t want to be yelling at someone across the street.”

“It’s just different,” Aguero said of the senior tradition. It’s a feeling many other Marfa students, parents and teachers can relate to, as students returned to classes this week.

For school officials already coping with a range of challenges — including last year’s convoluted school- and property-tax-reform bill, House Bill 3 — coronavirus has added even more curveballs.

Schools have had to brace for a range of new plans and expenses, from creating safety plans for students to buying more cleaning supplies for schools. And making matters worse, students across the state and country have been withdrawing — adding more financial pressure to schools, which partially earn state money based on how many students are in seats. In a news release on Wednesday, the Texas Homeschool Coalition said there had been a 400% increase in public school withdrawals this August, compared to in 2019.

In total, Superintendent Oscar Aguero — John’s father — estimates the school will spend around $90,000 on new coronavirus expenses, from supplying hand-sanitizer stations for the school to deep-cleaning classrooms and school buses. But the school was able to cover those costs, after the band director left and the school finished paying off a 5-year loan.

“It was a good time to pay off a loan,” he said with a laugh.

Still, there could be more financial difficulties in the near future. Altogether, Superintendent Aguero says he’s expecting around 40 to 50 kids to withdraw, bringing the school’s enrollment from around 300 to 250. (At press time on Wednesday, Aguero gave the most current enrollment numbers at 284, with 39 students currently unenrolled.)

At Marfa ISD, the school year started up again on Tuesday — but for now, it’s all virtual classes. Next Monday, the school will reopen campus to students who want to attend in-person.

“Some students have had internet problems,” Superintendent Aguero, said of that first day of classes. “Some just didn’t log on like they were supposed to.”

The Big Bend Sentinel has spent months reporting on the reopening of Marfa schools, covering everything from worried parents and school safety plans to the attempts by teachers and parents to adapt Montessori education for a pandemic. But even after planning documents and hours of meetings at the local school board and with state education officials, school administrators admit there are still plenty of unknowns as coronavirus remains a reality in Texas.

With schools across the region already reopened, including Presidio ISD and Sul Ross State University, Marfa ISD is about to dive into the challenges faced by schools elsewhere. Last month, within days of reopening, PISD had to close campuses after a high school student was confirmed to have coronavirus. But since then, the school hasn’t learned of any more infected students or staff members, Superintendent Ray Vasquez said this week.

In an interview after Marfa’s first day of classes on Tuesday, Superintendent Aguero was feeling good — for now at least.

“Everyone seemed positive, so I think we hit a high note,” he said. But he acknowledged that “might be different next Monday, when we start doing some face-to-face instruction.”

He’s hoping many of those students will return, as coronavirus hopefully starts to ebb by next semester and some families decide to re-enroll. But if not, “that might hurt us in January,” he said. With each student earning the district around $5,000, a loss of 40 kids could mean a $200,000 shortfall in funding.

“For now, we’ve passed a balanced budget,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.”

Then, of course, there are the impacts on students. And not just on education, as The Big Bend Sentinel has previously covered, but on the mental and emotional well-being of students who may see a lot less of their friends this year.

Andrea Torres, another senior, said that attending the senior street-painting tradition helped her realize she was entering “a new chapter in my life.” But when she realized that starting senior year didn’t necessarily mean catching up with old friends, “it really hurt,” she said.

“We didn’t feel like a class,” she said of the street-painting ceremony. “We were just doing our own thing.” And it left her wondering about the future of other traditions she’s long looked forward to, from senior night to homecoming.

Torres plays volleyball, while John Aguero, the other senior, is the quarterback on the Marfa Shorthorns team. For both of them, the return of sports games and practices has brought not only a refreshing sense of normalcy, but also new concerns.

“I’m nervous that something is gonna happen to one of my teammates,” Torres said, “or that we’re going to have to cancel the whole season.” Aguero, meanwhile, acknowledges that there’s “always that risk” of possible transmission when it comes to contact sports like football.

“I’m willing to take the risk,” he said. “It’s just something to think about.”

Given the circumstances, a normal school year — or at least a normal fall semester — may not be possible for seniors. But at the very least, Marfa ISD hopes it can keep everyone safe. That means not only students but also parents and teachers, who — because they’re older — face a statistically higher chance of severe outcomes from COVID-19.

To that end, Aguero, the senior, has found himself worrying about his parents. After all, both work at the school: His father as superintendent and his mother as a Montessori teacher.

“I’m constantly talking to my parents about this,” he said of the returning school year. “I can see that it stresses them out. And I’m one of those guys where if I can see you’re stressed out, I’m going to be stressed out with you.”

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