As the sun set on summer break, a tough decision arose for Del Valle Independent School District parent Jessica Hernández.
“Should I send my kids? Should I not send my kids?,” Hernández says. ”We're seeing so many [Covid-19] cases, so we just want to keep our kids safe more than anything.”
Hernández wasn’t alone in her concerns. The rise of Covid-19 infections and breakthrough cases caused by the delta variant, first detected in India, left many Del Valle ISD parents in a tight spot. While their children’s education is top-of-mind, safety concerns led to complex choices.
“They were kind of scared. But then, I did talk to them and so they decided that they would go in-person because they had gone in-person last year,” Hernández says.
Hernández is a single mom of three with a child each in elementary, middle and high school. While her two youngest children are not eligible for Covid-19 vaccines yet, they do have another line of defense. In defiance of an executive order by Governor Greg Abbott banning mask mandates in schools, Del Valle ISD and many other school districts are requiring students and staff to mask up. This decision by the district ultimately played a factor in why Hernández decided to send her kids in-person.
“Now that it's mandatory, I feel more confident. I feel that people are more protected with a mask. I feel protected with a mask,” Hernández says.
The district’s mask mandate also helped Del Valle ISD parent Roy Woody Jr. make the decision to send his two children in-person a lot easier.
“I'm glad that they did that. I was like, ‘Yes,’” Woody Jr. says. “I think they're doing the right thing.”
Most Central Texas districts requiring masking have seen less cases and spread since the beginning of the school year. Districts like Leander ISD and Lago Vista ISD who did not implement a mask mandate from the start have had to shut down and reopen due to high case numbers. According to their Covid-19 dashboard, Del Valle ISD has seen a total of 101 cases between students and staff for the month of September.
“We're not seeing emails daily about our kid being exposed. It's like every few days or something like that. Maybe once a week,” Woody Jr. says.
Del Valle ISD parent Claudia Grussendorf also chose in-person learning for her kids, but in mid-August, she suffered a breakthrough Covid-19 infection. Her sixth grade son tested positive shortly after, forcing him to shift to virtual learning.
“His symptoms aren’t bad,” she says.“He's doing this while being quarantined right now,” Grussendorf says.
Breakthrough infections like this are a worry for Del Valle ISD parent of four, Daniella Gutierrez. Her three youngest kids are at home virtual learning, but her eldest, who is vaccinated, is attending in-person.
“My biggest concern that I have for my in-person child at Ojeda Middle School is him catching Covid and bringing it home to my little children. I have two that have asthma,” Gutierrez says.
Currently Del Valle ISD offers a virtual learning academy for children 11 and younger, essentially those that are not eligible to be vaccinated. Due to the lack of state funding, the district is forced to fund virtual learning themselves, but Gutierrez says she wishes more could be done.
“I think it's a good option for now to get our numbers down and to slow the spread for the pandemic,” Gutierrez says. “We can get through this thing, but we need people all on board putting the safety of our people first.”
Del Valle ISD parent Edna Obregon would also like to see a virtual option. She has two children attending Del Valle High School in-person because it's their only option.
“At the current moment, that's all they have available for the kids due to that, they're able to have the vaccine because of their ages.” Obregon says.
While surveys carried out by the Del Valle Community Coalition show that vaccine hesitancy in Del Valle is relatively low, there are some folks like Obregon that have made the decision not to get vaccinated. So, she says she worries about her kids catching Covid-19 at school and bringing it home.
“We have a lot of family members that have health issues and it's taken a toll on all of us,” Obregon says.
The worry over breakthrough infections hit a boiling point after a now-deleted video of crowded hallways at Del Valle High School circulated among parents on Facebook.
“The crowding in the halls is just overwhelming,” Grussendorf says. “I feel like they're overwhelmed with the amount of students at the school, so they're not able to, I guess, give the attention that the students do need.”
The district addressed this concern in a statement on Facebook to parents saying, “We are taking immediate steps to address concerns at DVHS.” These steps included leveling off of class sizes, rerouting students through separate hallways during passing periods and creating a third lunch period to minimize congestion. Del Valle ISD Superintendent Annette Tielle says they haven’t had any complaints from parents as of late but explains how the incident occured.
“When you have students who are new freshmen every year, they're learning the one-way traffic patterns in high school,” Tielle says. “When you have students who are sophomores, most of whom were home receiving virtual learning the year before, now you have two grade levels who are not familiar with the traffic patterns. … So that created a bottleneck in that area.”
More virtual options could alleviate this issue, but while Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill during the second special session that would see further funding for virtual learning, it imposes many limitations including prohibiting districts from offering virtual learning to more than 10% of the student population. Tielle says that under these restrictions, only 28 of the estimated 570 students that are currently receiving virtual learning instruction would qualify, so they are staying the course for now.
“I think that Senate Bill 15, it gives a false representation of the intention of the bill. … When you look at the strings that are attached to it and the addendums that were added to it before it went to the governor's desk, it really puts a lot of restrictions on districts,” Tielle says. “In an era of a pandemic, I would hope that our state leaders would put the priority on safety as opposed to the STAAR test.”
While Del Valle ISD parents continue to navigate a sea of complex choices created by the pandemic and external forces, Hernández says that communication with their kids and the school district are key to helping them make decisions this semester.
“I like that Del Valle [ISD] has been keeping us informed of everything,” Hernández says. “Have that communication with your kids to make sure that they wash their hands, sanitize as much as possible and just be safe.”
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