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‘We’re back to square one’ — RGV schools reopen amid omicron spike

Fewer people seem to be going into teaching in Louisiana, as enrollment in education programs at public colleges across the state has fallen by about 8,000 students in the last 20 years. -- Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.Teacher Classroom Students 2522
Fewer people seem to be going into teaching in Louisiana, as enrollment in education programs at public colleges across the state has fallen by about 8,000 students in the last 20 years. -- Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.Teacher Classroom Students 2522

Five school districts in the Rio Grande Valley are going back to school Monday, a week later than they planned, because of COVID-19.

Many of the burdens parents and students have felt since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 have been renewed with the latest omicron variant wave.

Erika Valdez, a mother of three sons in Derry Elementary at Point Isabel ISD (PI-ISD) said she and her sons are anxious about school starting up again.

“I try no to let it affect them so much, I’ll try to distract them as much as I can. Sometimes they feel like they can’t do anything, because they can get sick, they can get seriously ill or they can die,” Valdez said.

Valdez is vaccinated. She said her sons are not due to medical reasons.

Valdez began working from home in 2020, after she was laid off from her restaurant job on South Padre Island. Her sons were now attending school from home with three different grade levels of course work, often until 10 p.m.

“That was really hard,” she said. “It was like I was their teacher all day and all night until bedtime.”

Valdez said her sons’ education suffered from the remote learning. The boys eventually went back to school in-person in 2021, and plan to be back in the classroom Monday.

“It’s very, very scary,” Valdez said. “I do worry about what the school is going to do. Are they going to do anything extra? Are they cleaning? Are they sanitizing?”

PI-ISD was one five districts in Cameron County who opted to delay the start of their spring semester during this latest spike in COVID-19 cases at the start of the new year. The delay, according to PI-ISD Superintendent Teri Capistran, was to give the district a chance to catch up.

“This week (was) affording our school district an opportunity for not only our students to get identified (for being COVID positive) but even our staff members,” Capistran said. “We started off on Monday with a number, and I believe it was about 14, (Thursday) we’re at 28 COVID positives, just in our staff members. So, in a small district, that is a high number.” Point Isabel ISD has around 320 staff members and 2,200 students across five campuses, according to the National Center of Education Statistics. The district has had more staff and students contract COVID-19 in the last week than they have in the past 18 months of the pandemic, Capistran said.

“There was that sense of we’re at the tail end, or we-have-this-under-control mentality,” Capistran said. “And now it’s almost like, “let’s go back and tighten up our seatbelt again.’”

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Cameron County Health Administrator Esmeralda Guajardo said the RGV’s latest wave of COVID-19 cases is from people gathering during the holidays and the contagiousness of the new variant, omicron.

“We know we’re dealing with omicron, because it’s so infectious and it rapidly spreads,” Guajardo said. “Historically, in the last two years, we’ve only seen spikes after a holiday. And this is exactly what happened right now.”

Guajardo emphasizes students are getting tested for COVID-19 at a higher rate than the general population so they have a more accurate picture of infections among students.

Compared to last year, Guajardo said COVID-positive people are experiencing milder symptoms, which she attributes to the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. Cameron County in particular has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state, with nearly 80% of its residents 5-years-and-older fully vaccinated.

But even with less severe COVID illness occurring in the RGV, Cameron County’s health department still comes at odds with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Governor’s office.

Guajardo describes an experience that Capistran has had for the entirety of the pandemic: that schools have to engage in a “balancing act” between TEA requirements and the county’s public health recommendations, with the former often conflicting with the latter.

“You have the CDC, then you have TEA, and then you have all of these different entities and they are not always speaking the same language or on the same page,” Capistran said. “I am not a health care expert, but my job as an educator and leading our district and having to make those extremely difficult decisions is: I go and seek wisdom from those that are, and it’s based on the data.”

Guajardo said school districts and public health departments working together can help mitigate COVID-19 spread and the aftershocks of the virus.

“(School districts) are looking at the overall picture, the mental health aspect, making sure the children get to eat,” Guajardo said. “I’m looking at public health, and so if you ask me if (the students) should stay home, yes. But of course public health is everywhere. If they’re not eating it affects public health, mental health impacts public health. So these two (entities) go hand in hand.”

The TEA told superintendents on Friday that it would issue guidance on omicron in the coming days. Publicly, however, the agency hasn’t said what school districts could do, or if they can return to remote learning. Currently, only students who are COVID-positive or have been in close contact with COVID-positive people can attend school remotely.

PI-ISD is still requiring masks at all five of their campuses. PI-ISD circumvented Gov. Abbott’s executive order barring mask mandates by requiring them as part of its dress code. PI-ISD and other RGV school districts sued Texas Governor Greg Abbott in response to this mandate. PI-ISD has also now started offering dinner for students to take home at the end of school days, hoping to alleviate some financial burden from the community.

Capistran said some of the district’s COVID-19 protocols that were relaxed in the weeks prior to COVID-19’s latest wave were being reinstated on Monday. For example, students sat at tables with other students in class and at lunch, rather than separated at individual desks. Cleaning and sanitizing will continue, and students will no longer be grouped together. Large classes will be held in the library, to put distance between students.

“We’re back to square one,” Capistran said.

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Gaige Davila is the Border and Immigration Reporter for Texas Public Radio.