With lunch in hand, students at Tornillo Elementary line up for dismissal. Those students who are attending face-to-face classes are on campus in the morning and then go home with lunch and attend classes online in the afternoon. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

TORNILLO, Texas — Damaris Duran models how to solve an algebraic equation, drawing directly on a large screen at the front of her classroom. She adjusts her microphone headset as she walks her eighth-grade students through how to move the variables to find “x” and “y.”

She can’t see 14 of them because their cameras are turned off during this portion of the Zoom lesson. They can hear her, though, and watch her solve the equation in real time via an interactive presentation.

Only one student is present in Duran’s physical classroom at Tornillo Junior High School.

Damaris Duran, an eighth-grade math teacher at Tornillo Junior High School, uses this screen and software to write notes that will be visible to both her face-to-face student in the classroom and her online students working from home. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Tornillo Independent School District — which serves a rural area along the U.S.-Mexico border 45 miles southeast of El Paso — gave parents the option when the new school year started in August to have their kids continue with virtual learning or send them back into the classroom for in-person learning.

About half of TISD’s 900 students went back to buildings that had been shuttered since March. That number dropped when classes resumed Monday following the two-week break that marked the middle of the fall semester. About 55 of Tornillo Junior High School’s 225 students were on campus this week.

Though he would like to see more students in classrooms, principal Marco Tristan understands why more parents insist on their children learning from home: new coronavirus cases have hit record highs in El Paso County in recent weeks. The county reported a record 1,161 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and hospitals are straining to provide care.

Tornillo’s ZIP code, which has about 4,500 residents, has reported 144 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started — including 38 so far this month.

These spikes concern TISD Superintendent Rosy Vega-Barrio. As the county’s positivity rate increases — the percentage of all COVID-19 tests that are positive — so too does the risk of infection for families in the district. Many parents are essential workers who can’t stay home.

“We are already seeing the repercussions of academic access,” Vega-Barrio said of the learning loss that resulted from the switch to remote learning in March. 

Though TISD students were given laptops, tablets and WIFI hotspots, connectivity was still a challenge in the rural community. It wasn’t uncommon for students to miss a day of school because their device wasn’t working or the internet speed was too slow for the video conferencing software needed to sustain virtual instruction.

The importance of in-person instruction

Vega-Barrio was eager for her students to get back into the classroom. TISD was one of just two of the county’s nine districts to offer in-person learning at the start of the 2020-21 school year. The larger, urban districts have limited face-to-face instruction to students with connectivity issues or other extenuating circumstances, and have repeatedly delayed reopening classrooms to all students who want in-person learning.

“We see a greater growth in academic learning in face-to-face (instruction),” the superintendent said.

Ivan Brady, 5, works on an assignment in his pre-k class at Tornillo Elementary School. The students attend class in-person in the morning and then continue online lessons at home in the afternoon. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The county’s surge in COVID-19 cases could derail the progress teachers have made with these students if an outbreak leads to campus closures and a districtwide return to virtual learning.

It’s easy for Duran to make sure Jacqueline Rubalcava, the sole student in her classroom,  is following along and progressing through the worksheet. It’s harder to keep track of the others.

“Kids are online and they’re not always there,” Duran said of students who log-in but don’t engage with the lesson.

A break in the lesson is an opportunity to text or call a parent to ask where their child is. It’s a lot of work, but so too is catching up kids who have fallen behind, especially before they transition to high school. Duran worries most about the students who needed additional support before the switch to remote learning.

“I tell them (my students) all the time, you don’t want to come back in January and have missed half a year of eighth grade. That’s scary. … I’m trying to motivate them to want to learn for their own benefit.”

Jacqueline Rubalcava, 14, works on a math lesson at Tornillo Junior High School. Jacqueline says that she misses having her friends in school but appreciates more individual attention from her teacher. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Rubalcava, 14, has been learning on campus since August. Before the break, she was joined by two classmates, who are now learning from home for the time being.

“It’s easier to learn in person,” Rubalcava said. “I can ask the teacher more and if I need to stay after school I could.”

“Virtual classes are not that hard, but it does get a little bit stressful when you don’t have internet or something doesn’t work — you have to either miss work or not go to the class at all,” she said. In the spring, she and her two sisters shared the same internet connection.

“The Zoom meetings can only do so much,” Tristan said. “There’s nothing like having them in the classroom. Until we get them back, (learning loss) is going to continue.”

It will take “quite some time for us to help the kids catch up,” he said. Some students started the year behind grade level, he added.

Teachers spent the first week of the fall break hosting tutoring sessions and more will be held during the spring and summer breaks, the principal said.

In Fort Hancock, COVID-19 outbreaks temporarily halt in-person instruction

The struggle to balance education with student and teacher safety during the pandemic is playing out at many rural school districts on the Texas-Mexico border.

A truck loaded with cotton passes through Tornillo on its way to the interstate. The small town about 45 miles southeast of El Paso is surrounded by agricultural land. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Neighboring Fort Hancock Independent School District, about 20 miles east of Tornillo, had to temporarily close its three campuses within days of resuming in-person instruction on Sept. 21. By Sept. 23, it was back to virtual instruction for everyone because nine middle school teachers had contracted the virus, Superintendent Jose Franco said. Another seven students on the girl’s volleyball team tested positive a few days later.

Closing down the entire 400-student district was both a precaution and a necessity because its schools share teachers. Many of the middle school teachers also teach classes at the high school.

“We were blessed in the fact that some of the teachers who tested positive had symptoms that weren’t severe enough that they weren’t completely out of teaching” and could still give virtual classes, Franco said.

An outbreak at a TISD campus could also lead to a districtwide closure, Vega-Barrio said, because students have siblings across the campuses and live with extended family members. That increases the risk of viral spread.

Since August, nine TISD staff and two students have contracted the virus. Six of the cases are currently active.

The Texas Education Agency granted Fort Hancock a waiver to close campuses for two weeks after the teachers’ confirmed cases. Without a waiver, a district can only close campuses for up to five days without risking a loss of state funding.

The district reopened its schools Oct. 12 for in-person instruction.

Tornillo Junior High School students change classes under the watchful eyes of faculty and staff, who call out social-distance and mask reminders. The Tornillo Independent School District is currently offering both online and face-to-face options for its students. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Though his district is in Hudspeth County, which at 75 confirmed cases has one of the state’s lower case counts, Franco has his eyes on the rising numbers in El Paso. On Thursday, El Paso County — population 840,000 — had a total 36,025 confirmed cases to date, of which 9,406 are active.

Most of the district’s 60 teachers live in El Paso, Franco said. “And El Paso is where we go for everything — the doctor, groceries and then of course the hospitals,” he added.

El Paso is also where many in Fort Hancock go for COVID-19 testing because the community, like Tornillo, does not have a permanent test site.

Due to El Paso’s case surge, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath on Wednesday promised the 12 superintendents in El Paso and Hudspeth counties that the state will expedite sending them rapid COVID-19 tests, Franco said. Those tests can produce results within 15 minutes.

Franco sees the tests as a way to keep more kids learning on campuses. Right now, students who display coronavirus symptoms must quarantine at home until they test negative, meaning a drive to El Paso.

The tests will hopefully also give more families confidence to have their students receive in-person instruction, he said. Thirty percent of families opted for in-person learning last month.

“The thing I wish that people would understand is that it’s not the schools that are causing the spike,” Franco said. “It’s (people’s actions) out there in the community.”

Cover photo: With lunch in hand, students at Tornillo Elementary line up for dismissal. Elementary students who are attending face-to-face classes are on campus in the morning and then go home with lunch and attend classes online in the afternoon. (Corrie Boudreaux/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.

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.