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Rural West Texas schools confront rise in COVID-19 cases

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
The Marfa High School campus in Marfa, Texas.

One school district in the Big Bend region said it would shut down for multiple days because of a spike in positive cases and staffing shortages, while others remain open with a renewed focus on testing.

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to cause disruptions for school districts across Texas, schools in the Big Bend region are confronting their own uptick in COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

The challenges for schools at this point in the pandemic are, of course, not unique to rural West Texas, and not altogether new. 

Once again, school administrators are having to decide whether the public health risks of keeping students and teachers in classrooms outweighs the potential harm to students’ mental health and academic performance from remote learning. But this time, thanks to the much more infectious omicron variant, many school districts are also facing staffing shortages.

The Biden administration has pushed for schools to remain open, but for some districts, that’s easier said than done.

“With a small staff, it doesn’t take too many before we don’t have enough people to cover classes and we don’t have any substitute teachers that are available,” said Marfa High School Principal Allison Scott.

Citing an uptick in positive cases and related staffing shortages, the tiny Marfa Independent School District announced Wednesday that it would cancel all classes until Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Officials at the rural district, which has a student body of just 270, said several students had contracted COVID-19 and dozens more have come into contact with someone who has tested positive. Several teachers and staff are also quarantining this week.

“We thought, well, it would be best just to go ahead and shut down for these three days,” Scott said.

The district said it would offer COVID-19 testing for students and staff before classes resume next week.

Another rural school district in the West Texas town of Ozona announced a similar temporary closure this week because of staffing shortages, according to the Ozona Stockman.

Other Big Bend-area school districts have opted to remain open even as they deal with their own upticks in positive cases, mirroring a trend seen at schools across the state.

In Alpine, school administrators this week acknowledged a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, but said they would keep schools open while focusing on quickly identifying and isolating people who may have the disease.

“The district, through the nursing staff, is pursuing an aggressive testing effort to stay on top of infections and provide the data needed for the administration and board to make informed decisions as the situation continues to develop,” Dennis McEntire, Interim Superintendent of the Alpine ISD, wrote in a message to parents Thursday.

In an interview, McEntire said the district is seeing a high level of student absences, with almost 240 students out of school on Wednesday.

Recently, 45 students tested positive for COVID-19, he said, while some of the absences were due to someone within a student’s household testing positive.

“It’s the highest number of absences for this year,” McEntire said. “I expect it will go up throughout the school year.”

McEntire said some have been pushing administrators to close schools in Alpine, but he called that move “a serious thing.”

“We have a really strong testing program, we’re testing everyday,” he said. “We’re applying the triage method with nursing staff. If someone feels sick, they go get a rapid test and stay out of the school until test results come back. Same for staff.”

In his note to parents this week, McEntire said closing schools is still an option the district could pursue as the situation evolves, but he called it a “last resort.”

Schools in the small West Texas border town of Presidio are also seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, with officials reporting more than 40 positive cases within the district as of Wednesday.

But like in Alpine, school leaders in Presidio have not yet moved to cancel classes and are instead focused on testing and encouraging mask wearing. 

In a Facebook post this week, Presidio ISD’s police chief suggested that parents had been sending their children to school even when they showed symptoms of COVID-19 and begged parents to instead keep any sick children at home.

Chief Joel Nuñez, who has been coordinating the district’s testing and vaccine efforts, reported more than 40 positive cases within the district as of Wednesday. 

He said the school district is offering testing every weekday for students and staff, and members of their households. But as is the case across rural West Texas, testing supplies in Presidio remain limited.

“So we are telling people, because of the shortage of tests, let’s go ahead and wait at least three days with your symptoms and then come in and get tested,” Nuñez said in an interview. “If you feel sick, stay home, but we’ll test you after about three days.”

School officials in the tiny town of Fort Davis canceled classes for two days this week. Local district superintendent Gradyon Hicks said the closure was not specifically related to an uptick in COVID-19 cases, but rather because there have been several recent deaths in the tight-knit community — including the passing of former Jeff Davis County Judge George Grubb and his wife Patricia Grubb — and school officials wanted students and staff to be able to attend funerals and have time to grieve.

“We’ve had several kids who have lost family members just in the last few months,” Hicks said. “Everybody just needs to take a breath.”

Hicks said while he had heard anecdotally about newer COVID-19 cases in Fort Davis, he did not know whether the recent deaths stemmed from the disease.

The district planned to resume classes on Thursday.

Annie Rosenthal, Barb Anguiano and Carlos Morales contributed reporting.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.