Culture

Schools and students in Laredo adapt to the challenges of in-person learning amidst COVID-19

This article was written in March 2022.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, schools in Laredo, Texas are seeking ways to operate safely with limited resources to ensure the well-being of their students’ health.

Students have moved back to attending in-person classes, as online learning is slowly making its way out of the picture. However, in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott made this transition challenging by preventing districts from mandating vaccines and masks for students and staff.  Recently, a USC study found that Latinos are more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 than white patients. Since Laredo, a small city along the Mexican-American border, is more than 95% Hispanic, school districts are left to strategically mitigate the disease.

“After dealing with this [attending in-person classes] for a semester and a half, I have grown desensitized to the dangers of attending class,” said Regina Canales, a senior at John B. Alexander High School in the United Independent School District, one of Laredo’s two school districts.

“Crowded spots in the school make it difficult to feel safe. … Social distancing is hardly ever implemented as the hallways are constantly crowded with students during passing periods, and lunch blocks are flooded with maskless students who are eating,” Canales said.

Elva Martinez, assistant superintendent for student services at Laredo Independent School District, said that LISD purchased masks, face shields and hand sanitizers for students and staff. Along with these protective aids, Martinez said that acrylic partitions create social distance between students, each classroom is equipped with an air purifier and custodians disinfect classrooms as often as possible. 

Laredo ISD provided its schools with an infographic explaining the protocols if a student tests positive, is symptomatic, or is exposed to COVID-19. This infographic closely follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for student quarantine and positive students’ re-entry to classes. 

According to LISD’s data, at least 49% of the entire school district is vaccinated as of February 2022. However, health officials face challenges in convincing parents to get themselves and their children vaccinated. 

“We are trying to provide as much information [as possible] so parents can understand,” Martinez said. “We have several parent sessions in English and Spanish to communicate with all parents effectively.”

Ava Herrera, a senior at John B. Alexander High School, said she is frustrated that the lack of masks or vaccine mandates creates health hazards.

“It has been shown repeatedly that aside from washing your hands and social distancing, masks are one of, if not the most, effective tools we have to combat the virus,” Herrera said. 

The politicization of the virus has created tension within schools and districts for months now. Abbott has made repeated attempts to prohibit public schools and businesses in Texas from imposing any COVID-19 mandates, and misinformation online about COVID-19 continues to fuel skeptics around the efficacy of vaccines or legitimacy of the virus in general. 

Canales said her social media pages have helpful information about the virus, such as ways to protect herself and others. However, she sometimes doubts the information that she views online, particularly from her extended family on her socials. 

“I have noticed that their Facebook pages are filled with misinformation on COVID,” Canales said. “They follow highly political pages that claim COVID is fake, the vaccine has a tracker, and other outrageous lies. These pages are obviously scams of misinformation as they have little to no evidence to back their claims up and are written by individuals with no credentials.”

Graciela Lopez, director of nursing and student health services at Laredo ISD, said there is a lot of teaching involved in nursing and health care. With the CDC constantly updating its information on COVID-19 protocols, it is challenging for nurses to keep parents and students in the loop.

“Before it [quarantine] was 14 days [then] 10 days and now five days … that doesn’t help at times when you’re trying to educate and train and get back into the routine of things,” Lopez said. “You’re constantly having to stop to see like, ‘OK, now what? What’s new now?’ So, it’s a lot of education and having to reiterate things over and over.”

At Laredo ISD, Lopez said that vaccine clinics had been set up for students and parents to attend. Lopez said that the clinics administered more than 2,500 vaccines in a week among the district’s 20 elementary schools and four middle schools before students left for Thanksgiving break.

As vaccination approvals continued to roll out, Lopez said that nurses from LISD and the City of Laredo Health Department administered thousands of vaccines. Because school nurses were off-campus at times, administrators on campus would sometimes take on the role of the school nurse.

“Because our school nurses were doing our clinics once a week with the city…our principals and everyone we know had to step it up at the campus and take on the role of school nurse,” Lopez said. “It was a huge team effort, and it still is … from everybody to our assistant superintendent Maggie Martinez. She was out there at every single one of our vaccine clinics writing the [vaccine] cards just because she can’t vaccinate, but if she could, she’d probably be there, too.”

Lopez said her team hosted a vaccine clinic at a football game as a creative approach to offer students and the community opportunities to get vaccinated. Her team’s first football game clinic was at the Martin High School versus Nixon High School game, a local tradition in Laredo that brings out many fans every year. The district sent out flyers so that parents and students knew where these clinics were taking place. LISD is still actively administering vaccines. 

Along with their clinics, Lopez said that LISD partners with Community Labs, which provides free testing for students and staff. The practicality of these tests allows the schools to analyze the positive cases and easily report to the district, Lopez said. However, according to Lopez, the district knew they would see peaks and decreases as students returned to in-person school. Right now, LISD is seeing a decline in positive cases after the omicron variant. 

Iris Herrera, health services facilitator for Laredo ISD, said contact tracing is an essential mechanism for schools in addition to testing. Contact tracing has allowed Herrera’s department to see that transmission usually comes from activities students do outside of school. 

“A lot of times they [students] play sports together. During sports they wear masks, but they go in the car together, they take rides home together — a lot of other things not necessarily linked to the sport itself,” Herrera said. “So, that’s what we are seeing a lot of. We have to make those phone calls [to parents] and see what’s going on.”

Despite districts not being required to send exposure notices out to students and parents, Lopez said her district currently provides a tier-one letter. These letters are a general notice for anyone on campus who may have been exposed to that student and a shared activity notice, which is given to students in the classroom or their sports team.  

Even as mask restrictions are waning, Herrera sees large numbers of students, staff and Laredoans wearing masks.“I feel that if you kind of just encourage them [students] to, … they do,” Herrera said. “In Laredo, I feel that I do see a lot of people wearing their masks compared to when I go to San Antonio. When I’ve gone to Austin, a lot of people don’t really wear them. And especially because we don’t have children’s hospitals here.” 

Because Laredo is a small community, the city’s trauma centers do not have the capacity to function as they do in larger cities, Herrera said. “Most of our pediatric population gets sent out of town for care which in turn can take a toll on parents and children,” Herrera said. “Children have to miss a whole day of school to travel and most of the time they are tired the next day. Parents have to miss work and have the added expense that comes with traveling.”

Still, Ava Herrera is not entirely satisfied with her district’s handling of the virus. When classes transitioned to in-person at the beginning of the 2021 fall semester, her school mandated biweekly testing for extracurricular activities and clubs. However, she said this mandate ended a few months back. 

Herrera said that testing never felt too invasive or overbearing for her. She said that students used to sit in a classroom while they self-administered their test kits. Students were proctored by school nurses who provided instructions, and after 15 minutes, students recorded their test results with the nurse. A simple process, Herrera recounts. “I only wish they had kept these testing requirements in place. It provided an extra layer of security while being in class,” she said. 

As schools across both districts in Laredo continue to adapt to the reality of COVID-19, administrators say they continue to have to adapt to new findings about the virus while also working within state laws. 

“As we start learning more and as things start changing, there’s more questions and, sometimes, there’s more clarity,” Lopez said. “With the leadership and guidance of our LISD nurses, our campus teams were able to come together as one for the community.”

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