Nine months into disruptions to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, rural schools along the U.S.-Mexico border are seeing uneven impacts to student learning.

“Before this, we used to have maybe one big assignment per week in class, an essay, worksheet, or presentation. We had a whole week to comprehend the lesson and work on our assignment,” said Michael Maney, a senior at Tornillo High School. “Now, we’re practically given baby work, meaningless assignment after assignment, and it piles up.” 

Amber Moseley, a dual credit English teacher at Fort Hancock High School, surveyed 55 juniors and seniors at the school to get their impressions of how their education has gone since March, when COVID-19 upended schools and almost every other facet of life.

More than a third described their education experience as “great” or “better than ever.” 

“Some students are more focused. They are now accepting reality,” Moseley said.

But one in five said it was “worse than ever” or “not good.”

Since August, El Paso Matters has been tracking the impact of COVID-19 on education in two rural school districts — Tornillo Independent School District on the southeastern edge of El Paso County, and Fort Hancock ISD in neighboring Hudspeth County. 

The two districts have a combined 1,300 students, almost all of them Hispanic and economically disadvantaged. Both went to remote learning from March through June, as the pandemic arrived at the end of the 2019-20 school year. In the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, the districts have used various forms of hybrid education, while trying to draw as many students as possible back into classrooms.

Many classrooms sit largely empty, as large numbers of students continue to stay home or are kept at safe distances from each other if they return to campus. 

No one can provide a clear answer yet to the main question facing educators: how much learning loss has occurred among students as campuses and districts tried to work around the pandemic.

“Testing students is futile. We will not know anything until testing is consistent or controlled,” Moseley said.

Banners featuring Tornillo High School’s Class of 2020, whose senior year was completely disrupted by a pandemic, hang outside the school. (Mariela Jimenez-Rivero/El Paso Matters)

Both school districts reported an inconsistent attendance of students throughout the semester. Officials acknowledge that many students are at risk of falling behind or dropping out.

Schools play an important role for children that extends beyond what they’re learning in the classroom. Tornillo Superintendent Rosy Vega-Barrio said, “School provides a social upbringing. The social component is necessary, but we cannot do anything about it at the moment.” 

Getting students back in the classroom

Texas allowed parents to make the choice of whether their children can take class in person or remotely. Both Tornillo and Fort Hancock have encouraged parents to send children back to campus. 

“For the most part, the parents are very supportive, but we have to convince some of the parents to let their children return to school,” said Yadira Muñoz, the principal at Fort Hancock’s Bento Martinez Elementary School.

Face shields and masks are a requirement for students, teachers and administrators on Tornillo Independent School District campuses. (Mariela Jimenez-Rivero/El Paso Matters)

The ZIP code that includes Tornillo has had more than 500 COVID-19 cases among its 4,400 residents, including more than 400 since Oct. 1, when infections began to soar in El Paso County. Although Texas reports COVID-19 cases by school district, it suppresses data for individual campuses when fewer than five students have tested positive. So data is lacking for many rural schools.

Vega-Barrio is frustrated that she sees young people in social gatherings in the community, but their parents keep them away from school.

“If students are gathering with their friends regardless of the indications, why are parents not allowing them to come back to school where they will be taken care of?” she said. 

Hudspeth County, which includes Sierra Blanca, has had 350 COVID-19 infections among its population of 4,900. That includes a September outbreak that involved nine middle school teachers and seven volleyball players in Fort Hancock.

Sports has been an important component for bringing back students in Tornillo and Fort Hancock. Fort Hancock ISD requires students to attend school in person in order to participate in extracurricular activities.

 “As educators and coaches in small communities, we realize that what we share with kids on a daily basis is very important. Playing sports and being at practice are a good thing because these activities keep our kids out of trouble and teach them to be social as well as prepare them for the real world,” said George Treviño, who coaches volleyball and tennis at Fort Hancock High School.

Jesse Gomez, an athlete at Tornillo High School, said participating in sports was important to him.

“My mom was scared about COVID-19, but I knew that school was not going to be the same. Being in sports gave me the opportunity to come to school and get help with my work,” Gomez said. 

The importance of home life

Parents have always played a key role in their children’s education, and that role has grown in the COVID-19 era.

Especially among younger students, constant supervision by parents has been required to keep them on track as the nature of their learning shifts. Some kindergarten students have not shown up at all this semester, officials in Tornillo and Fort Hancock said.

“Parents are necessary for students to not forget the shapes and sounds of words,” said Alma Alvidrez, a kindergarten teacher at Benito Martinez Elementary in Fort Hancock.

Older students have also been affected by their situation at home. 

“My mom thinks that because I am in online classes that I don’t have that much work, so she gives me things to do at home like wash dishes, do laundry, sweep and mop all the house,” said Daisy Sanchez, a senior at Tornillo High School

Another Tornillo senior, Larry Silva said he has to work, adding to the difficulties of staying up to date with assignments and performing well academically. 

Different impacts of the pandemic

Most students who performed well academically prior to the pandemic continued to succeed as learning changed to adapt to health challenges, said Martina Collins, a social studies teacher at Tornillo High School.

“The way students acted in school is the same way virtually,” she said.

Some students found online learning beneficial because they found fewer distractions than in the classroom.

“I liked that there weren’t that many annoying kids and that there was also a better chance at getting late work done,” said Daniel Favela, a senior at Tornillo High School.

To allow for social distancing, classroom capacity has been greatly reduced at Tornillo High School. Still, many desks sit empty. (Mariela Rivero-Jimenez/El Paso Matters)

But Gomez, the multi-sport athlete at Tornillo, found it difficult to keep up with course work until he returned to the classroom.

“It was really hard to catch up with all of the work that I had not completed while I was at home,” he said. 

Vega-Barrio, the Tornillo superintendent, said about one in five students are at high risk of not meeting the academic standards. “We are trying to bring these students back, but some of them are not even attending school virtually,” she said. 

Teachers and administrators say they’re trying to keep students engaged and caught up. Shannon Carrasco, a mathematics teacher at Tornillo High School, provides tutoring to her students. She hosts Zoom meetings and in-person tutoring sessions as well as instruction on some Saturdays. Carrazco also records her classes and posts them for her students. 

“Seniors in my college-prep course miss having a traditional school experience. Some perform better with structure, and they were not distracted by responsibilities at home,” she said. 

The hallways at Fort Hancock High School were largely empty on Dec. 17 as many students continue to opt to take classes remotely. (Alessandra Jimenez-Rivero/El Paso Matters)

Fort Hancock ISD designed plans to intervene in the education of students who are at high-risk of failing. The plan consists of online group work, contacting the parents, on-site academic intervention, and a parent portal. The district also implemented tutoring services such as video conferencing, Saturday school, and help for students at risk during “Enrichment Fridays.” The latter is an initiative to host club meetings and other activities to keep students engaged.  

Students who are at high risk of not meeting the academic standards for the semester are typically those who attend school asynchronously, meaning they are learning remotely on schedules of their own choosing. 

“Kids in class are more attentive, and it is easier to hold them accountable,” said Juan Hernandez, an elementary school mathematics teacher in Fort Hancock. 

The stressful semester has also taken a toll on students; mental health. According to Cecilia Briones, a social studies teacher at Fort Hancock Middle School, “2020 was a difficult year, and I try to just teach my students and stay away from the health and political chaos. I tell them to just sit down and learn.” 

After returning from the holidays, rural border school districts like Tornillo and Fort Hancock will continue to focus on closing gaps and making sure that students are learning the material and not falling behind. 

One step is most important, Vega-Barrio said: “Kids need to be in school.” 

Cover photo: Jesse Gomez, a junior at Tornillo High School, sits alone in a classroom on Dec. 16 as other students take in lessons remotely. Tornillo requires athletes like Gomez to attend in person if they want to participate in sports. (Mariela Jimenez-Rivero/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.

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Mariela Jimenez-Rivero

Mariela Jimenez-Rivero is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in chemistry from Fort Hancock, Texas. Her work with El Paso Matters has inspired her to focus on the education system...