By Carlos Morales
With the start of the school year only weeks away, parents with children at Marfa Independent School District are eying the fall with trepidation as administrators struggle to navigate the latest guidance from the state.
The latest instruction from the Texas Education Agency allows districts to defer in-person instruction for at least four weeks, and in areas hit harder by the pandemic, district leaders can seek waivers from the state to further delay on-campus instruction and pursue remote learning for an additional four weeks.
Separately, Texas classrooms can stay closed for a longer period if a local health official orders them to do so.
It’s unclear right now what the next steps will be for Marfa district leaders. Shortly after the new guidance came down Friday, officials from across Texas were on a call with the state’s education agency to discuss the new direction. “Our objective is to get as many kids as possible on campus as long as it is safe,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on the call, according to the Texas Tribune. “But we know on-campus instruction is really the best instructional setting for the vast majority of our students in Texas. Please don’t feel compelled to use this transition period unless your local conditions deem it necessary.”
In the week leading up to the new guidance, superintendent Oscar Aguero held socially distant information sessions on the Presidio County Courthouse front lawn.
“We’re just trying to figure out the best way to do school,” Aguero told a small group of parents In mid-July. “To me, there’s been no clear guidance from the state.”
In the beginning, TEA said schools could offer virtual-only classes for the first three weeks of the school year, but then needed to offer in-person classes for families that wanted it. However, last week, a spokesperson for the agency confirmed schools can continue virtual learning and still receive state funding if a local health authority orders schools to be closed through the fall.
Aguero says he’s heard that but has yet to receive an official word from the state.
Presidio County Health Authority Dr. John Paul Schwartz says he’s been in touch with Marfa ISD officials and would support any order to close the rural campus.
As it stands right now, Aguero said the district administration is mulling the possibility of delaying the start of the school year so they can “plan correctly.”
During the informational session on the courthouse lawn, Aguero said the district needs more time to work with teachers to adjust to new practices and figure out how to safely navigate classroom instruction during a pandemic.
Normal, day-to-day practices like lunchtime and recess will be vastly different now, he said.
“We’re going to have to undo some of those things,” said Aguero. “It’s not going to be normal.”
Going forward, Aguero said there will be things like all-staff temperature checks every day and health questionnaires for staff to regularly fill out. And when it comes to athletics, it’s unclear if fall sports, like football and volleyball, will still be played. While Marfa teams have been practicing in the last few weeks, it’s unclear whether the University Interscholastic League, which oversees Texas sports and competitions, will allow sports to continue this school year.
UIL leadership is set to meet Monday to discuss school sports.
Another difficult aspect of preparing for the fall is changing how teachers and administrators interact with students. In small, close-knit campuses like Marfa ISD, Aguero says students are used to warm embraces with teachers and friends.
For their part, some teachers at Marfa ISD—and many more throughout the state—have expressed their skepticism about plans to return to in-person instruction. Some have raised concerns about the limited supply of personal protection equipment, like gloves and masks, for staff and have brought up concerns about staffing size. If a single teacher is sick, there could be extra pressure on the remaining staff, given the substitute teacher pool in rural Texas is lean.
Regina Gutierrez, a mother whose three children attend Marfa Elementary, says it’s been hard to explain the pandemic to her kids.
“They’re little, they don’t know what’s going on,” said Gutierrez. “I’ve spoken with them, the youngest still doesn’t fully understand. Every few days she’ll ask again [about returning to school].”
Gutierrez said her children want to go back to school in the fall, but she’s decided to keep them at home, where they’ll attend classes virtually. She explained that safety is her biggest concern, and there’s still too much uncertainty about the upcoming school year.
“It’s going to be difficult at home, and it’s going to be difficult at school,” said Gutierrez.
Other parents at the informational sessions expressed similar concerns and worried about how a lack of reliable internet at home would affect their children’s ability to do distance learning.
In rural West Texas, high-speed internet access can be unreliable, or out of reach altogether for some families. To facilitate remote instruction, the Marfa ISD is providing Chromebooks and, in some cases, hotspots to students so they can access the internet. For families without internet access, Aguero says the school district will provide printed hand-out materials.
On Friday, the governor’s office announced the state will shovel $200 million of federal stimulus funds to TEA to buy devices, hotspots, and routers and distribute them to school districts. It’s unclear if Marfa will see any of that funding.
With TEA’s latest guidance now out, Marfa district leaders are expected to make an announcement soon about how they plan to proceed with the coming school year.