Protesters rally against face-to-face classrooms

HARLINGEN — “Teachers Lives Matter.”

“ Keep Distance Learning, #No Face to Face, Our Lives Matter Don’t Put Us At Risk.”

More than 60 employees of the Harlingen school district and their families sent a clear message Tuesday to the school district that they didn’t feel safe returning to face-to-face classroom instruction. Coronavirus cases have exploded across the Valley, with new cases in Cameron County climbing by the hundreds almost each day and filling hospitals to capacity.

Teachers indicated the state and the district were endangering their lives as well as those of their students and their own families. Their concerns were highlighted by the recent death of Coakley Middle School teacher Jose Sanchez.

“ He was a wonderful person, from what I understand, and he was a great coach,” said Maggie Inglett, president of the Harlingen Texas State Teachers Association, which organized the rally.

“ We want our district to go online for the safety of our students and staff,” Inglett said. “I know HCISD is working and doing everything possible in the schools to disinfect and have all the precautions in place. But, we feel that having ten students in a classroom is still very detrimental to the students and to the teachers and every staff member that’s there.”

She and other teachers had hoped for better guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott and from the Texas Education Agency but that hasn’t come. TEA has mandated that all school districts offer face-to-face learning. However, Tuesday afternoon Cameron County issued an order preventing face-to-face instruction until Sept.8.

The Harlingen district recently released its “Pathways to Reopening,” which outlined both face-to-face learning and online instruction.

Shane Strubhart, spokesperson for the district, said parents can choose to do online learning, but reiterated that the district is required by the state to offer face-to-face instruction. This necessarily requires some teachers to come into the classroom, which they don’t feel safe doing. Strubhart said the protest is a way for district employees to convey their concerns to the state by way of the school district.

School Board President Eladio Jaimez commended the teachers for their passion.

“ As you can see, there are a lot of teachers that are out here because they care about their school district, they care about their schools,” he said. “We care about them, we’re listening to them.”

Teachers were very direct about their concerns.

“ They are playing Russian Roulette with us,” said one middle school teacher who gave her name only as Yvette.

“ I believe we need to go online 100 percent,” she said. “It’s not safe for our students, it’s not safe for us. And I think if one child gets sick and dies it’s too many.”

Yvette also expressed concern for her own safety, considering she has health issues which she says would mean certain death if she caught COVID — and she has two children at home.

“ I Don’t Want My Mom To Die,” read a sign created by her daughter.

Her son had his own sign: “Our Lives Matter! Don’t Put Us At Risk!”

He expressed concern for his safety and that of his mother if the state insists on schools holding face-to-face instruction.

“ It’s a very stupid choice,” he said. “It’s only putting more people at risk.”

Schools should open for face-to-face instruction but only after additional safety measures are put in place, said Dr. Ameer Hassan, head of the neuroscience department at Valley Baptist Medical Center.

“ I think if schools can find a way to realistically keep enough distance between everybody, everybody wears a face mask, if they can put Plexiglass barriers between all the desks, that obviously would be the safest thing to do,” he said.

Hassan, a father himself, said going virtual again could seriously hamper the education of children across the U.S.

“ It’s very important for them to be in the classroom for a good amount of time versus just doing homework at home and doing a one-hour Zoom,” he said.

He pointed out, however, that schools need federal assistance to install Plexiglass around desks, and that doesn’t appear likely to happen before the school year begins.

That said, he felt schools should remain virtual this fall unless they find some way to install the extra safety measures.

Inglett wasn’t sure whether even Plexiglass would put people’s minds at ease. It seemed the only thing that can make everyone feel safe is for the spread of coronavirus to slow.

“ My vice president has a newborn baby, just turned a year old in June,” Inglett said, referring to the TSTA VP.

“ She’s concerned about bringing COVID home to her child,” Inglett said. “I have others that have elderly parents that they are taking care of. I recently heard that a teaching assistant has COVID. She contracted it from her elderly parents. So she won’t be able to return at the beginning of the year.”

twhitehead@valleystar.com