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‘They’re playing with our lives’: COVID-19 fears persist as El Paso educators prepare to go back into the classroom

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Ross Moore, president of the El Paso chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, sent an email  to members last week with the subject line, “Back to School Checklist.” 

Instead of new updates from districts or guidelines from state in anticipation of the coming school year, the email detailed a list of considerations for members to think through with writing wills, looking at life insurance policies and other matters. 

“I thought the days of dealing with dire threats like this were over when I retired from the Army and went into Room C325 at Andress. This is what I signed up for in 1974 when I raised my right hand,” Moore wrote to the members in the email. “It is not what I signed up for when I signed my contract with EPISD in 2001. You didn’t either. Please take this seriously.”

Moore said in an interview with El Paso Matters that El Paso’s COVID-19 case numbers do not signal that it is safe to bring a group of people together. 

“Texas and El Paso are headed in exactly the wrong direction for putting people into a mass gathering situation,” Moore said. “And the expectations of my members … 79 percent think it’s either going to be significantly worse or worse over the next six months. That’s not good.”

Alejandra Smith, a teacher at Pebble Hills Elementary, looks at the new arrangement of her kindergarten classroom, Monday, Aug. 10. Smith has taped off six-foot squares around each desk and is waiting for plastic dividers to be installed. Before the pandemic, her students worked at group tables. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In August, about one in every seven new COVID-19 cases in El Paso County has been among people 19 and younger, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of Department of Public Health data. That is a far higher proportion than in the first 3½ months of the pandemic, and significantly higher than in July.

From July 1-Aug. 10, 1,265 El Pasoans under the age of 19 tested positive for COVID-19, compared to 558 from March through June.

Most El Paso County districts are starting the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 17, using only distance learning. Students cannot return to campus before Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. The El Paso, Socorro, Ysleta and Canutillo school districts are seeking waivers from the Texas Education Agency that would allow them to continue classes only online for the first eight weeks of classes, until mid-October.

Most districts are offering families three methods of instruction: face-to-face, virtual, or a hybrid of the two. Moore circulated a survey asking for members to give feedback on which of the three options seems safest for them. Most educators indicated that virtual instruction was safest for themselves and their students. 

“Try keeping a mask on a 7-year-old that needs to be hugged by the teacher,” Moore said. “It’s not going to work. … Sixty-two percent of my folks say, at all grade levels, that’s an unrealistic expectation that kids will remain masked. They need to, but it’s just not a realistic expectation.”

Challenges in the spring

When Socorro Independent School District closed earlier in the spring, a teacher said they had over 100 of their students logging in to do their coursework in the beginning. As the school year continued, this teacher, with over 20 years in the classroom, said they were lucky if 10 students would log in to the lesson.

While ensuring that the students were engaging with the coursework, behind the scenes they were focused on another need: securing a stable internet connection. 

“When I first heard that I was going to be teaching remotely I didn’t even have internet,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution by the school district. “I don’t know how I survived on the hotspot on my phone. And luckily, I was able to do that. Nobody helped me with that. The school district didn’t help me.”

Cynthia Lewis, a teacher at Pebble Hills Elementary, displays her virtual fourth-grade classroom on Monday, Aug. 10. Like other schools in El Paso, Pebble Hills will begin the year with at least three weeks of online learning for all students. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

As uncertainty swirls around the implementation of the Texas Education Agency’s guidelines for COVID-19 planning, the Socorro teacher said there’s no reason to believe that it is safe to teach in person. 

“I’m blessed that I have a job, but we’re in the dark right now,” the teacher said. “And honestly, I don’t think it’s safe for us to go back right now until they find something that’s going to protect us. Why can’t we teach remotely until we find some type of immunization that’s going to prevent us from getting sick?”

Thinking back to the previous academic year, the Socorro ISD teacher recalled crowded classrooms and hectic hallways. 

“We’re pretty much putting ourselves out there…,” the teacher said. “They’re playing with our lives. I don’t want to be part of a statistic of if it’s going to work or not.” 

Principal Irene Youngs says water fountains throughout Pebble Hills Elementary School have been turned off as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Moore said he was getting dozens of emails a day from member teachers with pre-existing conditions who raised questions about how teachers were expected to be back in the classroom. 

“One of the issues I’m trying to work with districts on, and so far they’re working with me on this, is that 62 percent of my members have (pre-existing) conditions, be it asthma, diabetes, cancer survivor, cancer treatment or any combination which makes them vulnerable,” Moore said. 

Moore said there has not been robust discussion about what happens when there is a positive case on a school campus. 

How schools plan to respond to COVID-19 cases

Socorro Assistant Superintendent Marivel Macias said that if a teacher tests positive for COVID-19, the students and other faculty who were in contact with the teacher will be alerted via a contact-tracing system the district has developed with local health authorities that follows the Texas Education Agency’s guidelines. 

“If at any time there is a student, faculty, staff member, somebody that comes onto our campus that is posted positive …. we’re able to, based on the information that we have, we’re able to start contact tracing,” Macias said. “And at that point is where information will be shared with our parents.”

Frances Yepez, left, director of facilities and construction for Ysleta Independent School District, demonstrates how to properly measure for socially distanced desk and chair placement in a classroom at Pebble Hills Elementary. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

TEA’s guidelines explain that while every campus should have a customized plan informed by the school’s local district and public health officials, there are a few points all schools should follow. One such point is related to how schools can inform parents, teachers and other faculty that someone has tested positive for COVID-19 by a lab-confirmed case. 

Macias said teachers would have access to personal face masks, hand sanitizers and that students and teachers will have to submit their temperature and symptoms prior to arriving on campus.   

Cynthia Lewis, a teacher at Pebble Hills Elementary, shows the social-distancing measures in place in her fourth-grade classroom on Monday, August 10. Lewis has changed her classroom arrangement as well as procedures for storing students’ supplies in anticipation of face-to-face learning in the fall. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“It’s truly going to be teaching and reteaching, and adjusting,” Macias said. “Again, this is all new to all of us. One thing that we’re used to in education is that we develop systems and protocols, and then every year we build upon it. So this year it’s truly our foundation year. And as we’ve been sharing, it’s our year where we’re going to be flexible and we’re going to pivot on a dime.”

Cover photo: An Ysleta Independent School District employee removes chairs that will not fit in a classroom at Pebble Hills Elementary on Monday. As desks and chairs are spread six feet apart, the capacity of the classrooms has been significantly reduced. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Emma Baker

Emma Baker is interning as a data reporter with El Paso Matters through the Dow Jones News Fund. She is a student at Washington University in St. Louis where she studies English literature and Computer Science. You can reach her at @ems_lorraine with tips.

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