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

Thousands of students are back on El Paso campuses Monday after state waivers delaying their return expired.

The Ysleta and Canutillo districts reopened classrooms Monday to all students who want to receive in-person instruction, something the El Paso and Socorro districts did last month after coronavirus-related hospitalizations dropped.

El Paso public schools are some of the last in the state to return students to classrooms.

In late October, as COVID-19 cases surged in El Paso, the Texas Education Agency agreed to let El Paso and Hudspeth County schools gradually bring students back based on the rate of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the region. That agreement lapsed Jan. 31, and with it state funding protections that had allowed districts to only offer virtual learning for the fall.

Still, most El Paso families are keeping their students online this semester. As of Monday, about 25% of EPISD students, 29% of YISD students, 8% of SISD students and 30% of Canutillo students are receiving in-person instruction, according to data provided by district spokespersons. Teachers are now tasked with simultaneously instructing those in their classrooms and those learning from home.

Parents can opt into or out of on-campus learning at any point this spring. SISD expects more students will return to classrooms when hospitalizations go down, spokesperson Daniel Escobar said.

Unions want teachers to be vaccinated

El Paso teachers unions sought to delay students’ return to the classroom until school staff — most of whom had been teaching from home since March — were vaccinated. Educators, though, are not part of the priority groups Texas is vaccinating, which include health care workers, people age 65 and over and those with chronic conditions.

Only about 10% of his approximately 2,700 members are currently able to get the vaccine, said Ross Moore, president of the El Paso chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, EPISD’s largest union.

“CDC put out guidelines that included educators. (Texas Gov. Greg) Abbott deliberately took them off,” Moore said. “At the same time he’s pushing to put us back in classrooms. That’s a real sore point with my members.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “frontline essential workers,” like school staff, should be vaccinated in the second priority group with those 75 or older, after health care workers and nursing home residents. States, though, have the ultimate say in vaccine distribution.

Texas is among 25 states where teachers are currently ineligible for the vaccine unless they qualify through other guidelines, according to an Education Week tracker.

Even if educators are included in the state’s next priority group, it will be months before all El Paso County school staff are vaccinated.

CDC: Classrooms can reopen safely

Schools can safely reopen as long as precautions are in place, CDC researchers said in a medical journal article published last week, noting “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

For in-person learning to be safe, schools must require face masks, maintain social distancing and screen students and staff for coronavirus symptoms, the researchers said. Schools should also limit indoor sports practices and athletic events, something El Paso districts have not done.

At the same time, the surrounding community must work to reduce community spread through steps like restricting indoor dining, the report recommends.

With lunch in hand, students at Tornillo Elementary School line up for dismissal. Tornillo schools have been open for in-person learning since September. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Tornillo ISD Superintendent Rosy Vega-Barrio has seen the importance of schools and the community working together. Her rural district of about 950 students and 180 staff reopened classrooms in early September and was able to stay open through the fall.

Teachers constantly check in with students’ families to make sure they’ve been socially distancing and administrators remind faculty and staff daily about the need to follow safety protocols when they leave school.

“The minute that you start feeling a sense of security, I think that’s when we let our guard down,” Vega-Barrio said. If protocols hadn’t been followed, “we would not have been able to operate,” she said.

Schools seeing higher failure rates

The decision to reopen classrooms was not made lightly, Vega-Barrio said. “It’s a heavy burden to carry every single day,” she said. “That’s what we go to sleep with and that’s what we wake up with.”

But after a semester of having classrooms open, student learning loss “I think is even worse than really what COVID is,” she said.

Tornillo students who have been learning in-person have made more progress than those who have remained at home.

El Paso’s large urban districts are working to gauge learning loss, but failure rates from the fall, when students were in online-only classes, reveal many struggled to stay engaged.

EPISD, YISD and SISD students failed classes for the first two grading periods at higher rates compared to 2019, according to data the districts released.

Higher failure rates have been seen across Texas and the country, which prompted Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath in October to give districts the ability to require failing online students to return to campuses. EPISD, YISD and SISD officials said they have not done this.

Vega-Barrio anticipates Morath will require all students to return to classrooms next school year. That, though, has yet to be decided.

“That (learning loss) is really something that we’re going to have to work on, and not just year,” she said. “It’s going to be a ripple effect for many years.”

Cover photo: Frances Yepez, left, director of facilities and construction for the Ysleta Independent School District, demonstrated in August 2019 how to properly measure for socially distanced desk and chair placement in a Pebble Hills Elementary School classroom. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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.