Rural border schools face unique challenges during the pandemic
FORT HANCOCK, Texas — Rural schools along the U.S.-Mexico border face challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic that are common to small, isolated districts across the United States — broadband access and other digital divide issues, family support for at-home learning, staying connected with students over a far-flung area. But these challenges are amplified with a predominantly low-income immigrant population that is used to moving to meet economic needs.
At small schools in a remote part of Far West Texas, educators say they’re up to the challenge, in part because their students have overcome obstacles all their lives.
“Most (students) in Fort Hancock have learned English as a second language and have still succeeded on standardized tests that were created for native English speakers. Some have learned English as teenagers and are going on to succeed in college,” said Amber Moseley, who teaches dual credit high school-college English courses at Fort Hancock High School. “Our students have not known comfortable, perfect lives, and they are stronger for it.”
Rural schools in the Far West Texas borderlands resumed classes as early as Aug. 3, still using only online instruction. The return of face-to-face instruction is scheduled for September, but uncertainty abounds. The Texas Education Agency is allowing school districts to do up to eight weeks of online-only instruction.
These rural border districts ended in-person instruction in mid-March, as the novel coronavirus began spreading through Texas.
In preparing for a new school year, rural border schools drew on lessons from last spring, when they had to build a distance learning system from scratch.
The rural U.S.-Mexico border
Most of the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border is rural, with ranching and farming among the key occupations. Two small towns in Far West Texas — Fort Hancock and Tornillo — are typical of the rural school districts that dot the U.S. side of the border.
Both have international border crossings connecting to neighboring Mexican towns. Families have long been used to moving back and forth across the border. Many have homes on both sides of the Rio Grande. Many rural border residents are dual citizens or live in households with mixed nationalities.
In Tornillo, 99.7 percent of its 1,000 students are Hispanic and 93.8 percent are considered economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency. Fifty-nine percent are considered English learners.
Fort Hancock’s 400 students have a similar makeup — 97.2 percent Hispanic, 89.9 percent economically disadvantaged, 58.8 percent English learners.
Tornillo is probably best known as the location of a controversial detention camp that held more than 6,200 migrant children in tents from June 2018 to January 2019. The detention camp cost $2 million a day to operate, meaning the federal government spent more in a week at that facility than Tornillo schools spend in a year.
Tornillo means screw in Spanish. The town draws its name from a tree native to the Chihuahuan desert that produces screw-shaped pods. Its school board recently was one of five in the state to be recognized as Honor School Boards by the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Fort Hancock won five Texas state titles in six-man football in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A water tower visible from Interstate 10 celebrates those championships.
Just after the 2016 election, Fort Hancock’s volleyball team was the target of racist taunts when it played Archer City from North Texas in the state playoffs. Archer City students holding Trump/Pence signs chanted “build that wall” to their opponents on the other side of the gym. Archer City administrators apologized for the behavior. (The author of this story was a member of that Fort Hancock volleyball team.)
Fort Hancock’s name comes from an Army post that was named for Civil War general Winfield Scott Hancock and abandoned in the late 19th century.
Although adjacent to each other, Fort Hancock is in Hudspeth County and Tornillo is in El Paso County. Both districts had “B” ratings on state accountability measures in 2018-19, the most recent year available.
Hudspeth County, which has fewer than 5,000 people, has reported 35 COVID-19 cases through Aug. 15. In April, Tornillo had one of the first COVID-19 outbreaks in Far West Texas. It has had 76 confirmed COVID-19 cases among its 4,500 residents.
Unique issues facing rural border districts
In Hudspeth County, only 45.6 percent of the population had a broadband internet subscription in 2018, according to the Census Bureau. Fort Hancock Independent School District worked to close the technology gap by purchasing 400 Chromebooks and 200 wi-fi hotspots, investments that were later reimbursed through CARES Act funding.
The neighboring Tornillo Independent School District also invested in hotspots. It already had begun efforts before the pandemic to equip all students from fifth-grade and higher with tablets or laptops, an effort it called “one-to-one.”
“We had begun the one-to-one initiative two years ago. Grades 9-11 were already one-to-one; we only needed 12th grade and fifth grade. We surveyed the students to figure out who needed a hotspot and computer, and set that up for them as quickly as possible,” Tornillo Assistant Superintendent Rodrigo Portillo said,
The realities of border life presented challenges to the technology plans of rural school districts. When face-to-face instruction ended, many students went with their parents who found work in other areas of West Texas or Northern Mexico.
“A lot of the students left for Odessa and Midland to be with their families. Others attended class from the bordering town of El Porvenir in Mexico,” Fort Hancock Superintendent Jose Franco said.
Hotspots didn’t work in many cases in Mexican towns like El Porvenir or Caseta, which is across the border from Tornillo.
“Students whose hotspots didn’t work in Caseta always found a way to turn in their work one way or another. It required a lot of constant communication with the parents and patience,” Tornillo Elementary School Principal Myrna Lopez said.
Franco said he expects a number of Fort Hancock students to continue to live with family in El Porvenir as school resumes.
“Students are fortunate to have the opportunity to be bilingual and attend school in Fort Hancock; we hope we do not lose anyone,” Franco said.
Alonso Muñoz is a teacher in Mexico and has a son attending Fort Hancock Middle School. He is concerned about what will happen when students are asked to return to the classroom because border crossings have been strongly curtailed by the Mexican and U.S. governments during the pandemic. Only U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents are allowed to come into the United States at the Mexican border.
“Since only people who have a resident and citizen status can cross the border, I will not be able to take my son to school every day,” Muñoz said.
Adjusting to online-only education
During the spring, Fort Hancock ISD acquired new instructional material, but teachers did not receive training to fully apply the resources to their classrooms.
“There was a great availability of online resources, and the school acquired them because they did not know what would work. We provided a lot of feedback back and forth to figure out what was best. Maybe if we had more financial resources, we would have more online tools tailored to our needs,” said Aurelio Saldaña, a history teacher at Fort Hancock High School and researcher at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Through trial and error, rural border districts identified which online tools would be the most beneficial for the students and will be working with them in the months to come.
Cecilia Aceves, an English and social studies teacher at Fort Hancock Middle School, used online platforms in her sixth-grade class prior to the pandemic. Her students were familiar with the learning tools, so the transition to online-only learning was not as fraught compared to other classes. “Technology is now part of our instruction; it is no longer an option,” Aceves said.
“Digitalizing the classroom has not been a priority, just something extra—something for a new generation of teachers.” she said.
This fall, Fort Hancock and Tornillo will manage their classes through Google Classroom, which represented a challenge in the spring because students and teachers had little experience with the platform.
“The transition was stressful because there was a lot of background work that had to be done, such as training the parents and teachers to use Google Classroom,” said Amber Moseley, the dual credit English instructor at Fort Hancock High School.
Tornillo High School senior Vanessa Silva said she had mixed experiences with online learning in the spring. “I was frustrated because I couldn’t ask as many questions during the Zoom session, but I had less homework and more time to turn in my work,” she said.
The spring struggles should pay dividends in the fall because time previously spent “figuring out” Google Classroom will now be spent teaching, Moseley said. “These first few days have been much smoother than last year’s abrupt change,” she said.
Staying in touch with parents
Communicating with students and their parents will be another challenge throughout the 2020-2021 school year. In March, reaching out to parents was difficult because many are essential workers and sometimes left their children either with a grandparent or unattended.
Parents sometimes did not keep track of their child’s learning because they were not present or did not know how to navigate the online platforms themselves. In addition, some parents became frustrated when their child needed help with homework because they did not understand the material nor the language.
Chavez said that her experience during the spring was very difficult. “My children often had questions, and felt lost, and when they would ask me for help, I did not know what to answer or how to help them,” she said.
This literacy and technology divide is another issue that rural border school districts will be addressing.
Yvonne Samaniego, Fort Hancock’s director of curriculum and instruction, has been hosting training for instructional aides in the district.
“We are growing our instructional aid to provide help for the teachers when we open the school. Everyone will have to pitch in,” she said.
Samaniego has been working all summer preparing teachers virtually on platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom. “We are all working toward a common goal, and teachers will be showing the parents how to use the online resources,” she said.
Fort Hancock teachers will record their class sessions and training, and they will provide the links to the parents to adjust to their schedules.
Keeping students engaged
Keeping students engaged throughout the semester will be challenging, especially for rural districts. According to data reported by the Texas Education Agency in the “Summary of Student Engagement in Virtual Learning in School Year 2019-2020,” students in the Hispanic and Black communities were about 10 percent less engaged than their White and Asian counterparts. Additionally, schools lost the engagement of economically disadvantaged students. Rural areas along the border are predominantly Hispanic and low income.
Student disengagement is driven by many factors. The home situation of many students prevents them from participating fully in classes. Some students have to babysit their younger siblings during school hours while parents work.
Aceves said one of her sixth-grade students in Fort Hancock had to take care of his younger siblings while his parents worked. “The child is not old enough to provide good, essential care to his siblings, but ever since the schools closed, that is just the way it is. Even some older students still need someone to look over their work before turning it in. One can only imagine how tough it is to babysit a child when the babysitter is still a child himself,” she said.
Students’ home situations also impact their engagement. Psychologist Bryan Robinson from the University of North Carolina said having a designated space to work on leads to productivity. However, many students in rural border areas don’t have that option. Cecilia Aceves said some students refused to open their cameras because they were ashamed of their situation at home.
“Some students had family members always interrupting their classes, and others just worried about what their classmates would have to say about their home,” she said. “I spoke to some of my students about the issue, and I was able to comfort students by telling them that they will not be judged for the way they live.”
The key to online-based education — technology — is itself a distraction for many students. Without adult supervision and virtually no limits on screen time, students spent a lot of time on social media and entertainment sites. Aceves and other teachers said they often received assignments as late as 3 a.m.
School districts are considering training parents on how to reduce screen time for their children, which can cause eye strain and sleep deprivation.
Educators have labeled the loss of educational growth since the pandemic began as the “COVID slide.” They fear continued regression in student learning will disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic communities.
“We cannot afford for COVID to yield another repercussion, especially in education,” Tornillo Superintendent Rosy Vega-Barrio said.
Tornillo and Fort Hancock plan to assess their students current educational state at the beginning of the school year. Fort Hancock will prepare a controlled environment for assessment while maintaining social distance, Franco said.
“If our students will be moving forward, then we have to have some type of measurement system. We cannot provide a quality program if we do not know where to start,” he said.
Moving forward in the fall semester
Sports are an important component of the education and social experience for rural border communities. The inability to practice and play with classmates since the spring took a toll on many children.
“My older daughter really wants to go back, especially to play sports,” Fort Hancock parent Dalila Estrada said. “I am scared, but we do not know what will happen. We have to learn how to live with COVID.”
Vega-Barrio said Tornillo plans to offer sports activity this fall, “Sports are so valuable to the community, and we are taking it one day at a time. TISD is being creative with continuing workouts while social distancing. Sports will be essential to bringing back normalcy to the school districts.”
Tornillo Assistant Superintendent Portillo said the district plans to follow the University Interscholastic League guidelines and allow fans at games.
Schools will continue to provide counseling and other mental health resources for students and families. Tornillo has four counselors, one for each campus, and they will have Zoom meetings with students and parents throughout the school year.
“We want to be there for the parents during this time. We will reach out and help them by hosting afternoon sessions and virtual training,” said Alicia Alvarado, the counselor at Tornillo Intermediate School.
Despite the challenges and difficulties, rural border educators vow to meet the needs of their students. “Tornillo is a big community of learners, and we are lucky that we are still changing lives. We will get through it, make it work, and move forward. Now is not the time to shut down,” Tornillo Superintendent Vega-Barrio said.
Changes for the new school year
In the fall semester, Tornillo is using a “flipped classroom” setting, where students complete assignments and then have class based on those assignments. Additionally, the district is proposing an “A/B day” system to limit screen time to two or three hours each day, providing a collaborative day and an asynchronous day.
“This will encourage ‘student agency,’ allowing students to be advocates for themselves and own their learning,” said Portillo, the Tornillo assistant superintendent.
Tornillo also will include a “zero period” that will focus on college preparedness and critical thinking skills. The district also will focus on a more interactive, project-based curriculum to encourage student engagement and learning.
In June, Fort Hancock sent a survey to the parents to determine if they would allow their children to return to school. “About 60 percent of the parents in the district will allow the children to return to school. This has helped us make a plan on how to divide the classrooms and allow for social distancing,” Superintendent Franco said.
The district is planning on providing face-to-face instruction starting Sept. 8 to students who are allowed. In the meantime, students from grades third to 12th will attend class synchronously on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The other two days, teachers will be available to provide support online and assign educational packets for students to work on throughout the day. Children from pre-kindergarten to second grade will only be receiving packets.
That schedule will remain in place for students whose parents opt for continued online-only instruction after Sept. 8. Students heading back for in-person instruction will be in the classroom five days a week.
Instructional packets will be available for contactless pickup at Fort Hancock schools for those students who are not available to complete their work online. It’s not an ideal situation, said Aceves, the middle school English and social studies teacher.
“The packets are not as effective as remote learning. We will not be able to guide those students in real-time. Also, providing constructive feedback does not happen with packets because it takes longer to grade. Some students will not be able to turn them in on time because their parents are not there. Teachers will need to be flexible and comprehensive in a case-by-case situation,” she said.
Parents are also concerned about the efficacy of the packets.
“My son is in second grade, and he received packets in the spring. He focused sometimes. I would divide his work, but it was hard sometimes because his teacher taught him different methods than I did, and he would get confused,” Fort Hancock parent Dalila Estrada said.
Because of her experience, she will allow her children to return to school in September. Estrada said, “I am a little scared, but yes. Although I enjoyed spending time with my children, they did not learn the same, especially my younger son,” she said.
Other parents are worried about sending their children back to the classroom while the novel coronavirus continues to spread.
“I do not want my children to return because many people are infected, and I am afraid that the school will not take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread,” Fort Hancock parent Marisol Chavez said.
Results so far
Tornillo students resumed their education on Aug. 3 and Fort Hancock students started a week later. Parents and teachers are reporting challenges. Vega-Barrio is particularly concerned about low enrollment at the youngest grade levels.
“Low enrollment for pre-kinder and kinder is significant. Parents are opting not to enroll students,” Vega-Barrio said. “This is not good at all. We offer full day pre-kindergarten because we know that we need to provide all of our students a fair playing field for an opportunity to have a successful start to an academic future. We need our parents to know how important this is.”
Moseley, the Fort Hancock dual-credit English teacher, said English as a second language students are having difficulty with online-only learning.
“I can tell ESL students are struggling without having a friend beside them to translate. They will have to learn new strategies to succeed in the classroom,” she said. Moseley is translating her instructions for ESL students.
She said educators are having to adapt as they teach from their schools to remote students. District policies do not allow teachers to eat together or interact during the day. “I like being able to compare notes with teachers and getting some adult conversation to break up the day, but we are not getting that,” she said.
Fort Hancock parent Yadira Macias said she’s seeing new issues in her sons’ classes.
“My sons spend a lot of time behind the screen, and my younger son does not know how to navigate windows on Google. Some of the children do not have online etiquette and often distract the other students,” Macias said.
Many of the frustrations of the spring are still present in the new school year.
“There are still challenges at the home front for a handful of families that have different aged students that need their support throughout the day to complete their work. Or the families that have both parents working and having to come home to help their children engage in learning for the day,” Vega-Barrio said.
Overall, the Tornillo superintendent said the education experience so far this school year is a vast improvement over the spring.
“In the spring we were all in reactive mode and were navigating through this new form of instruction as best as we could. However, now our teachers and staff have received extensive professional development throughout the summer and continue to receive weekly, therefore they are prepared to do an outstanding job considering the situation,” she said.
Cover photo: A small international crossing connects Fort Hancock, Texas, with El Porvenir, Mexico. (Mariela Rivero-Jimenez/El Paso Matters)
This story is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.