“Hello from South Texas!” said Andrea Worthen Falcon. If there was ever a person with a sunny outlook, it would be Falcon. Her positive attitude and love for people has provided hundreds of students with a teacher, mentor, and part-time mom. After 25 years in public education, she will be retiring in 2021.
Falcon has always been cheerful. In high school, she sang soprano in the choir with music in hand and a melody in her heart. Four years after graduating, Falcon left Paducah, Kentucky and later moved to south Texas returning to her hometown for the occasional visit. Her home is in Los Fresnos, Texas and her remaining year as an assistant teacher in special education is in for a bumpy ride.
Knowing there’s one more year left in her career is bittersweet. There’s also the elephant in the room, COVID-19. Falcon’s last year as an assistant teacher will be marred with the devastation of a ‘little-known’ virus that has cost so many their lives, jobs, and sanity.
The community of Los Fresnos, Texas is located in Cameron County and part of the larger metropolitan area that includes Brownsville, Harlingen, Raymondville and Matamorors. It’s home to over 400,000 people. The area is 90% Hispanic with 30% of the population under 17 years of age. The median family income is $38,000.
Falcon teaches at the Los Fresnos Consolidated Independent School District. There are nine elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, and 10,000 students. Los Fresnos is only minutes from South Padre Island, the Mexican border and the city of Brownsville, the largest city in the county with 180,000 people.
The community where Falcon teaches and lives is disadvantaged. Most of the adults have two or three jobs just to make ends meet. She said south Texas has been hit hard by the pandemic. Falcon has personally known several people that have died from COVID-19 and there’s no way to trace the root of the cause. She said, “Families here are losing both parents to the virus. Just two weeks ago, a mother died of COVID after giving birth en route to the hospital. She was only 21.”
“The community is very family-oriented,” said Falcon. She believes this could be a reason for the spike in COVID cases. Since Los Fresnos is close to South Padre Island and the Mexican border, friends and families like to get together for holidays. Falcon said they’ve been seeing over 1,000 positive cases a day in the area over the past week. Texas Public Radio, an NPR affiliate, confirmed Falcon’s numbers.
The Rio Grande Valley, home to the University of Texas and the southernmost tip of Texas, is recruiting nurses from all over the country to help with the exhausted medical teams. Refrigerated trucks have been brought in for bodies because the morgues are full. Falcon said, “There are no funeral services for those who’ve died from COVID,” she continued, “Ambulances sit outside the emergency room with sick patients waiting to be admitted to the hospital through the ER. Heaven forbid you have a non-COVID emergency.”
Falcon said she does have some anxiety about going into the classroom, however, her family won’t live in fear. She said the school system where she teaches is a ‘prayerful district and she knows they’ll do what’s best.”
The school district sent a questionnaire to parents several weeks ago asking for feedback related to in-person classes and online instruction. It was determined that students would receive three weeks of remote learning, after which there will be 72% staying remote, 13% hybrid, and 15% on-campus learning.
Students, faculty and staff that will be on-campus will have daily fever checks and will wear masks. Gloves will be provided where necessary and hand sanitizer will be placed throughout the campus. There will be plastic plexiglass separating students and teachers will sanitize in between classes.
“The students that will be on-campus really need to be on-campus,” said Falcon. In Los Fresnos, students receive breakfast and lunch free and sometimes dinner if they’re being tutored after school. “Having meals provided five days a week is a blessing to many families,” said Falcon. She continued, “The children that need to be in school, are looking for a safe haven from the troubles outside the school walls.”
Teachers will use Google classroom for online learning. Falcon says this is new to her and there’s some anxiety, however, she loves to learn new things. If the teacher Falcon works with is unavailable she’ll be trained to take over teaching duties.
“I totally love what I do,” said Falcon. While attending Paducah Tilghman High School, former teacher Pat Miller asked her to participate in a tutoring program for students with special needs. Falcon said she needed a job and decided to get trained and tutor. In finding her ‘forever’ job, she’s spent 24 years as a special education assistant teacher helping those with learning disabilities.This year will be her last.
In Los Fresnos, Falcon said she is more than a teacher to her students. Though in the minority, students look up to her as a mentor. She said several of her students are on the spectrum, some are in gangs, and others have one or both parents incarcerated. She continued, “If I can make a difference in at least one student’s life each year, I’ve done my job well.”