HARLINGEN — Vanessa Perez is ready for class.
She teaches life skills in La Feria, and her students need more direct instruction than virtual learning offers.
“I’m one of the ones that feels that we should return,” Perez said. “I just feel like COVID-19 is here to stay. Just like the flu was once a pandemic, COVID-19 is a pandemic right now, and I just feel like it’s not ever going to go away. Prolonging the time starting is not going to do anything.”
Harlingen school teachers earlier this month protested a return to in-person instruction because of health concerns. There are those in the district who do favor a return to in-person instruction, but none would speak on the record. Two employees, one of them an instructor, initially expressed their support of teachers returning to the classroom but later backed out of going on record.
At the protest rally, teachers said returning to school would not only endanger their lives but those of relatives, especially ailing parents and grandparents. Some spoke about pre-existing conditions that would make them especially vulnerable to a COVID infection.
However, Jun Ellorimo, a local fitness enthusiast with two children in the district, expressed annoyance at the resistance of educators to return to the classroom. He and others referred to healthcare workers who have worked directly with COVID patients in spite of the risk to themselves and their families.
“Nobody should be forced to do a job that they don’t want to do,” he said. “For example, I’m a physical therapist. If I don’t want to see a COVID patient, I should not be forced to see a COVID patient. However, if I don’t want to see a COVID patient, guess what? I should step out and put somebody else who’s willing to do that, and I should let my job go.”
He expressed support for his teacher friends on both sides of the issue, but felt the same standard applies to them.
“I love my teachers, don’t get me wrong, but if they’re not willing to do what needs to be done, guess what? They might have to look for a different profession,” he said.
Alejandra Martinez, kindergarten teacher at IDEA San Benito, also compared teachers to the medical profession.
“I just feel like if our health professionals have to go out there they’re still risking their families, it’s no different,” she said. “If we have to step up, then hey we’ll step up and of course we’ll all take the precautions that the medical staff is taking.”
Ellorimo spoke in-depth about the local reaction in favor of 100 percent virtual instruction.
“I am a health care professional myself,” he said. “I deal with COVID every day at work. But what I’m trying to say is that I think what’s going on right now, the approach being made is an all or nothing rule. There should be at least an option.”
He pointed out he did understand the grave nature of the pandemic and its threat to the public health, but cautioned against fearmongering.
“I know there is a concern about COVID,” he said. “I do respect that parents and kids, people have different situations, that if it’s not safe for their kids to go to school because they’re with a grandma or grandpa that’s ill, obviously that would not be a perfect situation for them.”
However, other parents do want their kids to be physically in school and they should be allowed to do so, he said. He said that although his two children are high achievers even they’ve begun lagging behind in the virtual classroom. They get a week’s worth of homework which they easily complete by Wednesday or Thursday and he has to find additional things for them to do.
Parents, he insisted, should be able to decide whether their children will be in a virtual or in-person classroom, but there’s a movement toward a yes or no.
“There’s no wrong and right answer to this,” he said. “It’s can’t be yes or no. This is something in between because we’re all in the same storm.”
Martinez also said educators should support the varying needs of students.
“We have to support those children that either don’t have a safe home, those children that have a disability and need to be at school,” she said.
Everyone seemed to agree that virtual learning leaves something to be desired.
“I just feel that my students need more in-person instruction because of their disabilities,” Perez said. “My students are children with autism and intellectual disabilities. I just feel that they cannot sit in front of the computer for the hours that we are required to have them in front of the computer.”