Attendance numbers drop on day of protest

Prior to Thursday’s Day Without Immigrants protest, Simon Middle School principal Jose Puga tried his best to maintain a “business as usual” mentality with his staff.

He understood recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations in Travis County caused anxiety among parents who may not be legal citizens. He tried to reassure them their students were safe at school.

What he tried to prepare for versus what actually transpired was unexpected.

Roughly 57 percent of the Simon student body attended school Thursday. Simon was one of three Hays CISD campuses, all located on the east side of Interstate 35 in Kyle, that had attendance figures below 60 percent.

“I was not expecting to have that kind of attendance,” Puga said. “(Thursday) was a different atmosphere.”

The same could be said at Hemphill Elementary school, which had only 50 percent of its student population go to class Thursday.

Tracey Robinson, Hemphill principal, said several teachers had classrooms with no students in them. Robinson said kids who are usually at school and who “we keep safe and keep fed and who we teach weren’t here to learn.”

Much like Puga, Robinson attempted to persuade parents to send their children to school, where they are safe.

Ultimately, the message of the protest, which asked participants to not go to work, school or buy anything, resonated with many parents. Robinson said anxieties of not only the parents but also the students are evident.

She said affected students are afraid as they understand the “difference between who is born in the U.S. and who is not.”

“They’re worried about their parents more than anything. Imagine having to go to school and be attentive and to learn while wondering if dad is going to lose his job or if he’s not home,” Robinson said. “These are issues kids cry about and it’s a reality. People don’t understand what it’s like.”

Despite the lack of students, both Robinson and Puga lauded teachers’ creativity in maintaining instruction.

For the district, helping approach and support students who feel the anxiety is now the focus.

Alejandro Gongora, Hays CISD’s director of Bilingual, ESL and Migrant Programs, said he has spoken with campus staff and administration regarding support for immigrant students.

Maintaining student safety is the primary goal for the district, Gongora said.

“The responsibility for us as a district, as well as campuses is to ensure safety. To make them feel invited, loved and nurtured while they’re at school,” Gongora said. He added the district tries to impact all students’ social and emotional well being as well.

In addition, the district attempts to dispel some of the myths associated with recent ICE operations, which include ICE picking up students at school, or showing up at the supermarket to pick up parents.

“We try to calm that fear down and ensure they’re at school and in an environment where they’re nutured and that we’re here to support them,” Gongora said.

Tim Savoy, Hays CISD public information officer, said the district’s 82 percent attendance rate the day of the protest was higher than what was anticipated. He also realized tension has been building.

But the low numbers at the three schools showed the “fear is real,” Savoy said.

“It’s not surprising, but it’s telling,” Savoy said regarding attendance at the three campuses. “It illustrates how the fear is real.”

Social media can also fuel the fears, as many parents are receiving third-party tips on their rights as immigrants through the Internet and on Facebook.

Savoy said the district maintains a long-standing policy whereby they do not distribute non-school materials or allow for political action on campuses, in order to limit distractions and allow for a “stress free” school day.

However, the district does provide resources for students who experience stress. Counselors can also distribute a list of resources and agencies for assistance to parents and students.

Taking things one day at a time amid a changing political climate is the approach the district will take.

“Hopefully, we don’t experience another day like that,” Puga said.

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