The Smell of Pencils in the Fall

Shoppers know that after the Fourth of July the pool floats and sunscreen get moved to the clearance rack and the school supplies take over. I always thought it seemed cruel to roll out the notebooks and crayons so soon when I was dreading going back to school. Then I had kids and enrolled them in our local public school, which is year round.

Today, as the extremely helpful Target team members furiously unpacked boxes of school supplies, we scooped up the items on the lists sent home last month. School ended June third and starts up again the last week of July.

Or it *usually* starts the last week of July, but after new guidelines came down from the governor, it was pushed back a week to August 2. I don’t really know why it was changed at the last minute, but hooray for an extra week of summer! The guidelines state that masks cannot be mandatory, and no virtual learning is allowed.

Texas is not the same as, say, Connecticut. If the governor of Connecticut wanted to make rules for the entire state regarding COVID-19, that might make sense. At it’s widest part Connecticut is 112 miles across, so while the COVID-19 experience in the city might be different to the more rural areas, declaring blanket precautions and mandates might make more sense in a state that size.

The governor of my state lives 576 miles from my city. Texas spans 801 miles from top to bottom, and 773 from east to west. The distance from Houston to Dallas is similar to a trip from Paris to London, and 29 million people live here. El Paso is in a different time zone that the rest of the state, for crying out loud. When the governor rescinded his mask mandate, we were still experiencing a dangerous surge and had to get special permission to extend our mask requirements. When he declared that Texas was open for business, he had to send us a fleet of morgue trucks to hold bodies because of the massive backlog of COVID deaths that hadn’t been autopsied and confirmed as COVID deaths.

We are also a border city, snuggled up against Juarez to the south and New Mexico to the west. As in, I could get to Mexico or New Mexico faster than I could get to any other city in Texas. While our vaccination rate and case count is important for deciding what to do in terms of school and mask regulations, it’s also crucial that we look at those same factors in New Mexico and Juarez. Our vaccination rate is very high, and a huge number of people here got COVID which provides natural immunity, but Juarez never had the capacity for mass testing and thousands of US citizens move back and forth across that border every day. There’s no real border with New Mexico of course, just a sign that welcomes us to our neighboring state, so making sure folks over there are also getting their shots is important.

Does it make sense to lock down San Antonio when New Mexico has a surge? Of course not. But it’s important that we take precautions here. The reverse is true as well — there’s a military base north of here in New Mexico, and when El Paso was in lock down a lot of the soldiers from our local army base traveled north for shopping and entertainment, which was unfortunate.

We desperately needed *regional* guidance and for local mayors in this area to agree on plans together, including the military, because the base case count was secret and not included in our county numbers (it’s on federal land so not in our county) and that base is right in the middle of town and thousands of people live there. We need the same thing now, as schools reopen.

In some cases Texas cities are the size of small states, so it’s not unreasonable to take planning on a regional or city by city basis. When people talk about what school will look like “in the fall,” that isn’t the reality for our kids, who are starting in a matter of weeks. They attend elementary school and are too young to be vaccinated right now. No kid in that building will be vaccinated, unless some of the fifth graders are twelve. The district is not allowed to mandate vaccination for teachers and staff, either.

If the governor hadn’t put his ham hands all over our school district’s planning, I would have to make the choice for my kids myself when deciding between virtual or hybrid learning and traditional attendance, so at least I don’t have to stress out about making the wrong choice. We don’t have a choice at all, unless I elect to fully homeschool my kids myself, which I don’t feel I am equipped to do, either academically or emotionally. I definitely want my kids to go to school and socialize and get used to the classroom again, but I don’t like that our city/school district has essentially no say in the matter. I worry we are going to be trapped into reacting instead of acting, and that if there is a massive outbreak or a new variant that’s lethal to children emerges we’ll have to wait until a huge number of people are sick so we can ask the governor if maybe it would be okay to close the schools or make everyone wear masks.

I will send my kids with masks, but what are the odds they consent to being the only kid in PE wearing a mask? It’s a lot to ask of a kid, so the adults should step up, from local officials to the state capital. Give each county or district the power to make these decisions based on the communities they serve. And then pray you have serious people on your school board who put lives before politics.

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