Schools Shut Down in Rural Texas to Keep COVID-19 From Overwhelming Communities
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In the town of Iraan, located in West Texas with a population of approximately 1,300, there exists a hospital with a capacity of 14 beds. However, critical care services are not available at this facility. Therefore, the hospital staff can only stabilize patients and then transfer them to larger hospitals.
The hospital is staffed by family practitioners who have experience in the emergency room. There are no specialized doctors, ventilators, or intensive care units (ICUs) available. The nearest hospitals that offer these services are located in Midland, Odessa, and San Angelo, all of which are more than 80 miles away. However, it is uncertain whether these hospitals can accept transfers due to the current surge in the pandemic.
Given this context, it is extremely concerning that 50 individuals in Iraan have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks. While only four adults required hospitalization, three of them needed ventilators and had to be airlifted to other hospitals. Jason Rybolt, the administrator of the Iraan General Hospital District, provided this information.
Fortunately, there have been no deaths due to COVID-19 in Iraan, and no children have been hospitalized for the virus. Nevertheless, Tracy Canter, the superintendent of the Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District, reviewed the statistics and considered the potential risks for the district’s students and employees when deciding about the return to in-person schooling. Ultimately, Canter announced on August 16 that the district would close until August 30.
Before the closure, approximately 23% of the district’s staff were absent either due to testing positive for COVID-19 or coming into contact with the virus. In addition, around 27% of instructional staff and 17% of students were also absent due to either exposure or contracting the virus. These numbers surpass the previous year’s figures, which is particularly alarming for a small district where employees often have multiple roles. Throughout the day, some individuals may teach, coach, and even drive the bus.
Canter explained, "Considering these extraordinary circumstances, we believed that it was in the best interest of our students and staff’s safety and well-being to proceed with quarantine measures."
Subsequently, three other rural school districts in Texas followed a similar path, temporarily closing all or some of their campuses due to the pandemic. These closures occurred due to the increasing number of staff and/or students falling ill with the virus or being in quarantine. Iraan’s situation is further exacerbated by the lack of local medical facilities capable of handling hospitalized patients.
In Morgan Mill Independent School District, located southwest of Fort Worth, over half of the staff were absent due to illness. Consequently, the district decided to close all campuses until Thursday, August 19, due to COVID-19 concerns. Since no classes were scheduled for August 20 in the first place, officials stated that they would evaluate the situation over the weekend. Bloomburg Independent School District in East Texas closed its doors for several days during the week of August 16. Additionally, Waskom Independent School District, also in East Texas, initially closed its elementary school for the week and later extended the closure of all campuses until at least the 23rd of August due to COVID-19.
All four districts are located in areas where less than a third of residents are fully vaccinated. Furthermore, nearby hospitals that provide critical care services are facing staffing shortages while the delta variant continues to burden the Texas healthcare system.
In Morgan Mill, Superintendent Wendy Sanders mentioned in an email that although many school district staff members were absent due to illness, a significant portion of them chose not to undergo COVID-19 testing.
Sanders stated, "It was their personal choice not to get tested. I believe in preserving personal freedom of choice and not enforcing testing."
The closures of these small districts prompted the Texas State Teachers Association to urge Governor Greg Abbott, once again, to rescind his order against mask requirements. The organization called on all educators and students in the state to wear masks on campuses, as recommended by healthcare experts. They emphasized the importance of recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious threat and that vaccination is crucial.
However, despite other districts in the state opposing Abbott’s mask mandates, these four small districts will abide by the governor’s order. They will not mandate masks for students or teachers and will adhere to the latest guidelines provided by the Texas Education Agency.
The Texas Education Agency has not provided a comment on how it is handling school districts that have chosen to close.
Kevin Brown, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, expressed the belief that students thrive and learn best when they are physically present in the classroom. After a year of uncertainty, schools were eager to reopen their doors. However, for small communities, the impact of someone falling ill or needing assistance extends beyond just one family and affects the entire community, as everyone is likely familiar with the person in question.
Brown also emphasized that smaller school districts face challenges in terms of staffing, unlike larger districts that can more easily find substitute teachers or implement alternative measures to avoid complete shutdowns. Additionally, rural districts often require staff members to juggle multiple roles, such as teaching and coaching.
Iraan-Sheffield ISD plans to offer remote conferencing for students as per the latest guidance from the TEA. Similarly, Waskom ISD will also provide remote conferencing options and intends to make up for lost time at the end of the academic year, according to Superintendent Rae Ann Patty. On the other hand, Bloomburg ISD has not yet decided whether to offer remote conferencing, and officials are currently deliberating on how to compensate for the missed instructional time.
Tracy Jackson, a parent of a senior in Bloomburg ISD, expressed support for the decision to close the school, believing it was the best choice for students and staff. While she is not concerned for her 17-year-old, she trusts that the district will prioritize the safety of everyone involved and take necessary measures to prevent further closures.
To curb the spread of the virus, Jackson, along with others, believes that wearing masks and getting vaccinated are essential. She worries that future closures due to the virus could continue to disrupt education.
In Iraan, the hospital district administrator, Rybolt, and his staff are dealing with concerns over 50 positive COVID-19 cases out of 119 tests. This represents the highest number of positive cases the hospital has faced since Rybolt assumed the administrative position in December 2020. If more residents of the town require hospitalization, it could be problematic given that other regional hospitals are already grappling with staffing shortages.
Russell Tippin, the president and CEO of the Medical Center Health System, which includes the Medical Center Hospital in Odessa, where patients from the Iraan hospital are transferred, highlighted the difficulties faced by the small facility. When just one or two patients, or even three or four, are admitted, it places a significant strain on the hospital. Tippin expressed concerns that the Odessa hospital may surpass its previous record for the number of COVID-19 patients and encounter further challenges due to staff shortages. The medical staff is exhausted and overwhelmed from having to treat young, otherwise healthy individuals in critical condition or losing their lives to the virus.
Don McBeath, the director of government relations for the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, has noticed a decline in the number of employed nurses in rural hospitals due to the hardships they have faced over the past year. According to a labor analysis conducted by the Texas Workforce Commission, there are 23,000 more vacant registered nurse positions in Texas than there are nurses seeking employment. Many nurses have retired, feeling that they are too old to continue in such demanding circumstances, while younger nurses may have reconsidered their career choice due to the unforeseen challenges.
Brian Lopez, a reporter covering public education at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit and nonpartisan media organization, provides comprehensive coverage of public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues in Texas.
Disclaimer: The Texas Association of School Administrators and Texas State Teachers Association have provided financial support to The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. However, the financial supporters have no involvement in the Tribune’s journalism. A complete list of financial supporters can be found here.
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