In Hobbs, New Mexico, the high school closed and football was cancelled, while just across the state line in Texas, students seemed to be living nearly normal lives. Here’s how pandemic school closures exact their emotional toll on young people.
Everything looks the same on either side of the Texas-New Mexico border in the great oil patch of the Permian Basin. There are the pump jacks scattered across the plains, nodding up and down with metronomic regularity. There are the brown highway signs alerting travelers to historical markers tucked away in the nearby scrub. There are the frequent memorials of another sort, to the victims of vehicle accidents. And there are the astonishingly deluxe high school football stadiums. This is, after all, the region that produced “Friday Night Lights.”
The city of Hobbs, population just under 40,000, sits on the New Mexico side, as tight to the border as a wide receiver’s toes on a sideline catch. From the city’s eastern edge to the Texas line is barely more than two miles. From Hobbs to the Texas towns of Seminole and Denver City is a half-hour drive — next door, by the standards of the vast Southwestern plains.
In the pandemic year of 2020, though, the two sides of the state line might as well have been in different hemispheres. Texas’s response to the coronavirus was freewheeling. Most notably, it gave local school districts leeway in deciding whether to open for in-person instruction in August, and in conservative West Texas, many districts seized the opportunity to do so, for all grades, all the way up through high school. Students wore masks in the hallways and administrators did contact tracing for positive cases of coronavirus, but everything else went pretty much as usual, including sports.
On Friday nights, high schools still played football, with fans in the stands.
New Mexico’s response last year was the opposite. The state, led by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, took one of the most aggressive lockdown stances in the country, and issued stringent guidelines for school reopening, so stringent that Hobbs was allowed to bring back only a sliver of its students for in-person instruction.
For high school junior Kooper Davis, whose family lives 10 minutes west of the border, this meant no school and no football. This was a problem, because he loved both of them.
Kooper had always gotten straight A’s, despite a tendency to leave big assignments to the last minute. He charmed classmates and teachers alike with his playful ebullience. His natural high spirits had carried him through his life’s primary challenge to date, his parents’ breakup when he was a small child. He started playing organized football at age 5 and could not get enough of it. He played basketball, too, but football had his heart. When the youth minister at church once apologized for missing one of his high school games, Kooper reassured him that it was okay, that he did not depend on an audience: “I play for myself,” he said.
Kooper started heading off to quarterback camps and private training — in Atlanta, New Orleans and Tucson, among other cities — hoping to better his odds of getting to play in college, an aspiration that became more feasible as he sprouted to 6 feet, 4 inches tall, ideal for throwing over linemen, if only he could get his agility and coordination to catch up with his height. His parents encouraged him to aim for the Ivy League, but he knew its football was middling. Instead, he set his sights on Stanford, which excelled in sports and academics, and which he had visited for another football camp.
For student-athletes aspiring to play in college, junior year is key. It’s that year’s video that recruiters will look at, and that year’s grades that admissions officers will scrutinize. Kooper already had a highlight reel, and it included some nice-looking throws, but it was from his sophomore season on the junior varsity team. Junior year was everything… Continue Reading