By Stephen Paulsen, Big Bend Sentinel and Carlos Morales
Like many in Presidio right now, Alondra Flores is angry at the local school district. A student at Sul Ross State University, she’s been attending classes virtually from her home in Presidio, where she hoped to safely ride out the coronavirus pandemic with her family.
But now coronavirus cases in the city are spiking, and Presidio schools look set to cut all virtual learning options for students. For Flores, who graduated from Presidio Independent School District and has three brothers there, that feels risky.
All we want is “the option of remote classes [or] face-to-face classes,” Flores said in a text message. “That’s it. We just want to have an option.”
Other factors are adding to the tension between the school district and the community. A school board meeting last week prompted a protest after school officials offered no way for dozens of residents to attend, possibly violating transparency laws. And just days before that meeting, a Presidio ISD employee died of coronavirus.
Like school districts across the region, Presidio ISD has scaled back virtual learning in response to falling grades and rising rates of truancy. Last month, the school board voted to eliminate virtual learning for anyone who was missing or failing classes.
Though Presidio ISD at press time had 18 active cases and at least 23 total cases, according to the district’s coronavirus tracker and state data, Superintendent Ray Vasquez stressed in an email to The Big Bend Sentinel last week that coronavirus is “not just a school issue.” He reiterated that virtual learning wasn’t working, saying that around 75 percent of remote students were failing classes.
But anger is growing in Presidio as teachers, students and families say the district doesn’t have adequate plans to keep people safe during in-person schooling. At press time, there were 93 active cases in Presidio County, with many of those located in the border city.
In interviews, many families said health — not semester grades — was their top priority right now. Nubia Saenz has two children at the school. She worries about the younger one, a caring six-year-old boy who misses playing with his friends.
Still, Saenz is adamant about not sending her kids back to school during a pandemic. If necessary, she said she’d home school them herself.
“It’s going to be difficult, but those are just the times we’re living in,” she said. “As moms, we’re nervous. The kids are too.”
On Wednesday, the Presidio School Board discussed whether to cut virtual learning altogether — but with residents and local media prevented from entering the meeting, many were kept in the dark. There were no virtual options to attend, and the school board does not record meetings, instead publishing meeting minutes later.
A Marfa Public Radio reporter was among those denied access to the public meeting.
Top school board officials, including President Ethel Barriga, have not responded to requests for comment by email and phone.
Superintendent Ray Vasquez did provide written comment for this story, but he has so far ignored requests for phone interviews to discuss the scaling back of virtual learning and the rising case counts.
“We will collaborate with our local health authorities in evaluating the positive cases throughout our district,” Vasquez wrote in an emailed statement. “We will make the best decisions for the safety of our students and staff.”
It’s unclear if the closed meeting was legal. While Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency coronavirus orders have limited capacity at public events, they’ve also expanded options for public officials to host meetings remotely. But with no virtual option on Wednesday, dozens were denied any access to the public meeting.
By press time, the Texas attorney general’s office did not respond to questions about the event and whether any public meetings laws were violated. But the AG’s office has previously expressed concerns about apparent open-meetings violations at Presidio ISD, as The Big Bend Sentinel reported in May.
Asked about these issues, Vasquez said that “concerned parents were given the opportunity to voice their concern during public comments.” Specifically, those parents “selected four individuals to speak on their behalf.” They were otherwise unable to comment or view the public discussion.
As the nearly three-hour meeting proceeded, a crowd of at least 70 frustrated and anxious parents waited outside. They signed petitions, organized protests and talked about sending their concerns to legislators and state education officials.
“It’s not true that the school is prepared to reopen,” a frustrated Iris Gaytan, mother of three Presidio elementary students, said outside the meeting on Wednesday, as Presidio ISD cops guarded the doors. “I’m mad at the superintendent, because he doesn’t respond to us. He ignores us.”
Faced with contradictory messages from the school, many families by Friday were still confused about whether they’d have to send their kids back to school after Thanksgiving break this week. On Friday, the Presidio Elementary Parent Teacher Organization posted a live video in an effort to clear up the confusion.
School officials in the video said that the district would likely revert to all in-person learning on Monday, Nov. 30. Those plans could change if cases continued to surge, they said.
So far, though, Presidio ISD hasn’t put a number on how many cases it would take to change the district’s plans. And the video — which glossed over concerns and featured peppy music and a virtual tour of the elementary school building — struck an awkward tone for many frustrated families, further inflaming tensions.
“I’m so pissed off,” Flores said in a text after the livestream. “I’m speechless.”
The result is a growing protest movement in Presidio unlike anything seen in recent years. At press time, almost 200 locals have joined a group text critical of the school. Some have written protest letters, including to State Senator José Rodríguez and the Texas State Board of Education.
“We’re concerned that coronavirus cases continue to climb, in our community and for our neighbors in Ojinaga,” one protest letter reads in Spanish. “We’ve seen staff take absences to quarantine or because they’ve tested positive for the virus. Entire groups of students have had to take absences.”
“We are demanding HEALTH and transparency for our children, and by extension for our families,” the letter continues. “What could be more important?”
Some parents say the school hasn’t been understanding enough of the health needs of Presidians. One parent, Hilda Huerta, said she met with Superintendent Vasquez about a daughter who has asthma. Vasquez reassured Huerta that her daughter could get a medical exemption allowing her to continue virtual learning.
For Huerta, that wasn’t good enough. Her other daughter doesn’t have asthma and would still have to attend school in person. The family also lives with Huerta’s father, who has diabetes.
“For me, it doesn’t make sense to send one kid to school and not the other,” Huerta said in an interview. “The one who goes to school is going to bring the virus home, where I’m trying to keep my other kid safe.”
Families have long complained about a lack of transparency from Presidio ISD. “A lot of our teachers have left our campuses because they cannot work with” the superintendent, said Jusby Vasquez, a parent and vice president of the elementary PTO. Her family is considering moving because they’re tired of tensions at the school.
In this case, Jusby thought local school officials should listen to families who were concerned about returning to in-person schooling. “I just want the option,” she said. “My daughters are afraid. They don’t want to go.”
Meanwhile, staff cite fears of retaliation as a reason they don’t speak up when they see problems at the school. While many teachers are critical of school leadership when talking privately, they are almost never willing to criticize the school on the record.
Near the start of the school year, the district scheduled a professional development day for teachers in a school cafeteria. Some teachers were upset about the large in-person meeting and called in sick in protest. Frustrated, Superintendent Vasquez told the teachers they were replaceable, according to four people with knowledge of the meeting.
“I have explained to our staff that all employees, including myself, can be replaced if their career plans take them in a different direction,” Vasquez said when asked about the comment. But for some staff, the comments represent what they say is a culture of intimidation at the district.
Further heightening tensions, a Presidio ISD employee died just days before last week’s meeting. In mid-November, school bus mechanic Facundo Rodriguez developed a cough. Around the same time, he learned he was positive for coronavirus.
On Sunday, Nov. 15, he died in his sleep. “He passed away that night,” his son Heriberto said. “In the morning, when my mom got up, he had passed away.”
Asked about the situation, Vasquez acknowledged an employee died earlier this month. He said the school had not yet “received notification regarding the cause of death.” The Big Bend Sentinel can confirm that Rodriguez died of coronavirus, based on conversations with local officials and a news release announcing a Presidio coronavirus fatality on the same day as his death.
Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County, said it was unreasonable to link the death to the school when coronavirus was already spreading in Presidio. He said the school was taking precautions and was in touch with him regularly. He argued having kids in classes was better than having them hanging outside of school with friends, where they could further spread the virus.
Dr. Schwartz called out state leaders for what he said was a lack of leadership. “They’re really trying,” Dr. Schwartz said of Presidio ISD. “They’re just not getting guidance from the state. They’re making it up as they go.”
Malynda Richardson, the Presidio Emergency Medical Services director, more or less agreed. It was possible the case was linked to the school, she said. But with coronavirus spiking throughout the city, there was “no way to know.”
Like Dr. Schwartz, she thought Presidio ISD was trying to do its best, that failure rates among virtual students was a major problem and that Texas state leaders weren’t doing enough to support schools. But despite issues with grades and truancy at the school, she still had misgivings about cutting virtual learning altogether. “I’m not thrilled about anything that’s going to expose more people,” she said.
The relatives of the bus mechanic who died support the efforts to keep virtual options. Heriberto Rodriguez, Facundo’s son, noted that at least two of Facundo’s co-workers had also tested positive around the same time as him.
“I’ve got a couple friends that have their kids in Presidio, and they’ve been supporting trying to close the school” for in-person learning, said Rodriguez, who now lives in Odessa. “With a lot of cases popping up in teachers and kids, that’s understandable.”
By the time the Wednesday meeting wrapped up, only a handful of parents remained outside, waiting for a chance to talk to school officials. Superintendent Vasquez stopped for several minutes before receiving an apparent police escort to his truck.
In an interview after the meeting, school board president Ethel Barriga said while the board moved to approve the option to end remote-learning, the district may not immediately do so.
“We went ahead and approved it and it’s going to be there in case we need it,” Barriga said following the meeting. “It’s going to be a lot of common sense obviously, and depending on the spike we have over the Thanksgiving break.” But as a school parent and the wife of a teacher, Barriga said she worried not only about student safety, but also student performance.
Outside the school, anger was brewing. Dozens of parents drove through the city, honking and clamoring in protest of the district’s decision. The protests continued again the next day.
On Thursday and Friday, some parents also kept their kids out of school in protest. Alondra Flores, the sibling of Presidio students who has become a major player in the protests, estimated around 30% of students were absent, including all three of her siblings. In his email, Vasquez said he was “not aware of any students protesting” but that “our attendance rate was lower than usual.”
“That is not unusual right before a holiday break,” he added.
John Ferguson, the Presidio mayor, could hear cars honking in protest during a city council meeting at Presidio City Hall on Wednesday. At the time, he didn’t know what people were protesting. He wasn’t surprised to learn they were angry at the school, which he has also criticized for scaling back virtual learning.
He was surprised, though, to hear that the school was preventing people from attending an in-person public meeting without offering virtual options. “The school has the means, at a bare minimum, to have these meetings just like the city does, with Zoom or a call-in number,” he said. “And for them to not make that available, it seems like it just flies in the face of open-meetings laws.”
Ferguson warned the school against dismissing the concerns of parents. In the early 2000s, he said, parents started demanding the resignation of a school board member. Though Ferguson didn’t remember all the details, that board member, Carlos Nieto, was later sentenced to federal prison for accepting bribes.
As the controversy continued, parents kept their kids out of school, Ferguson said. They even started a protest group, called Padres Unidos, “parents united.”
“It’s happened before, and it doesn’t surprise me it’s happening now,” he said. “If the school doesn’t show signs of wanting to work something out, they’re going to keep fighting.”
Flores certainly plans to keep fighting. The pandemic may have put new pressure on families in the area, she said, but it’s also revealed the community’s resilience and their willingness to push for change. After all, she said, it’s only fair that families have the option not to expose themselves or their children to a contagious disease.
On Monday, Flores spoke to a radio station in Ojinaga about the situation. If the school doesn’t relent, the group is planning other protest actions, up to withdrawing their children from school.
The next step, she said, will be trying to talk to state education officials in Austin. “Ray Vasquez isn’t the last one with authority,” she said. “There’s someone above him.”