EDINBURG, TEXAS – The current rate of COVID-19 community spread in the Rio Grande Valley is more than 1,000 times greater than the day on which Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the statewide closure of schools on March 19.

For this reason, local school districts will not start the Fall semester with in-person instruction. Instead they will focus on distance learning, remote instruction and virtual education.

Indeed, Cameron and Hidalgo County leaders have instructed local school districts not to open up their campuses for in-person learning. These moves have delighted state Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg. He has been vocal in his concern about schools opening up again. 

“The Rio Grande Valley is currently one of the largest COVID-19 hotspots in the nation, and now is not the time to return our teachers and students to crowded classrooms,” Canales said.

“Bureaucrats in Austin might be willing to put our community at risk by starting in-school learning before we are ready, but our local leaders must stand up and protect our region.”

Canales thanked the City of Pharr and the City of Edinburg for taking the lead in issuing orders to keep local schools closed to in-person tuition. The cities made a declaration that there will be no in-person learning until further notice.

Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina said: “We have heard from our community and parents are worries about the safety of their children. We want to make sure our children are health, while still receiving the top-notch education they deserve. It won’t be like this forever, but for now, we agree this is what is best.”

Edinburg CISD issued this statement in response to the City of Edinburg’s order: “The district agrees with the City of Edinburg’s order to require at-home instruction for our students for the upcoming school year. After listening to the concerns from our Board of Trustees, parents, and staff, the district is focusing on the best way to provide a high-quality level of remote instruction for our students and a safe working environment for our employees. Interim Superintendent Gilbert Garza Jr. will continue to advocate and partner with local and state officials on the safe reopening of our schools.”

Rep. Canales recently sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott expressing his “deep concern” with an earlier decision by the Texas Education Agency to bring students back for in-person schooling this fall. 

“We are one of the nation’s worst hot-spots, yet TEA continues to push our local communities to bring our children together in crowded classrooms without the opportunity or time to design, trial, and implement a proper health and safety plan for everyone within the school system,” Canales said.

Canales said that in addition to providing delayed guidance, TEA continues to suggest that starting school is safe because “relatively few children with COVID-19 are hospitalized or have severe symptoms”. Canales said this reasoning “completely ignores our school teachers and faculty and the overall impact that spreading the virus within our schools will have on communities around Texas.”

Canales said he has worked in the legislature to ensure that Texas teachers and schools have everything they need to be successful. “Educating each and every young Texan continues to be my top priority, but considering the current health crisis, it is difficult to imagine we are ready to bring back in-person education,” he added.

Hidalgo County perspective

Hidalgo County saw its deadliest day yet Tuesday, July 14, with 31 local residents dying of complications related to COVID-19. This brought the total number of fatalities to 183.

Health officials in Hidalgo County confirmed 396 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of known cases to 8,593. 

“I am deeply saddened today knowing that we continue to lose more and more of our neighbors to this terrible virus,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez. “The continued rise in fatalities and total positive cases is a grim reminder that this disease does not discriminate, and that we must all do our part if we are to overcome it.”

Cortez said there are currently 834 people who have been hospitalized with complications from the virus; 210 of those cases are being treated in intensive care units. No one was released from isolation on Wednesday. Currently, there are 5,031 net active cases and 1,087 test results pending. 

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Ivan Melendez, in his capacity as the Hidalgo County Local Health Authority, on Tuesday issued an order that all public and private schools, from grades pre-kindergarten through grade 12, will not re-open for in-campus instruction until after September 27. The order was signed and issued on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Melendez said instruction may be provided through virtual, remote, or distance learning only. He said administrators, teachers, and staff may conduct or facilitate the remote learning process, or other operations, while on-campus provided they follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines including social distancing and wearing facial coverings at all times.

“I commend Dr. Melendez for putting the safety of our students, teachers and district staff first,” Cortez said. “As our numbers continue to rise, it is vital that we protect our children and our teachers. Until we can get a better handle on this virus we must continue to keep our distance from one another.”

Melendez said schools will not be allowed to host any school-sponsored events and activities, such as clubs, sports, fairs, exhibitions, and academic or athletic competitions, until after on-campus instruction resumes. He said that at least two weeks before resuming on-campus instruction, each school district must develop and submit a plan to parents and the public for their re-opening.

Cameron County perspective

Things are just as bleak in Cameron County. Its health officials confirmed an additional 415 laboratory reports of COVID-19. This raises the total number of COVID-19 cases to 4,590 in the county, There have also been an additional 37 individuals who have recovered, raising the total number of recovered individuals to 2,627.

On Tuesday, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño and Dr. James Castillo, Cameron County’s health authority, issued a “Joint Cameron County Health Authority and Cameron County Judge Emergency Health Control Order Delaying In Person Face-to-Face Public and Private School Instruction until after September 8, 2020.”

Treviño pointed out that as recently as July 13, the State of Texas ranked number three in the national with the most confirmed positive COVID-19 cases at 258,658. He noted that Texas has seen an increase of 63,419 new cases in the last seven days, and out of the 254 counties in Texas, Cameron County has the twelfth most positive cases in the state at 3,854. 

“In Cameron County, all area hospitals have surpassed their capacity to care for COVID-19 patients and are unable to tolerate any further increase in hospitalizations,” a news release from Treviño said.

“For the protection of life and due to the increasing concerns of COVID-19, the Cameron County Judge, with the advice and consent of the Commissioners Court, will proceed with the established Order which is supported by the honorable mayors of each municipality and the district superintendents throughout the county.”

Vanguard Academy’s perspective 

The board of trustees for Vanguard Academy passed a resolution on Tuesday evening delaying the start of the Fall semester and instructing Superintendent Narciso Garcia to provide distance learning, remote instruction and virtual education, rather than in-person instruction. The resolution had the full support of Garcia.

“The board of directors of Vanguard Academy has a substantial public interest to protect the health and safety of its students, staff, their families and the community,” Garcia said.

A resolution that Garcia will hand deliver to Judge Cortez and local mayors said: “The current rate of community spread is more than 1,000 times greater than the day on which the governor order the statewide closure of schools.”

The resolution called for the suspension of on campus instruction while still permitting the instruction of the children of essential workers and special needs students.

Distance Learning

Garcia noted that Vanguard Academy is ahead of the curve when it comes to distance learning, remote instruction and virtual education.

“We’re a month ahead of what TEA is trying to do with hotspots, broadband, wifi and internet connectivity, “ Garcia told the Vanguard Academy board of trustees. “We are like six weeks ahead of them because we haver all our devices, we have all the connectivity for our students, we have 178 families that need broadband. We have 450 wifi hotspots.”

Interviewed later by The Rio Grande Guardian, Garcia said:

“For three years the Vanguard Academy Board of Directors along with Administration have been planning and working on their One to One Device initiative. The first year the Charter School purchased about devices for 40 percent of the students. During their second year they purchased devices for 40 percent more students and during the third year of their plan they have a device for all 5,000 students. 

“During the Spring semester when the COVID 19 Pandemic first struck they provided devices to every 4th thru 12th grade student and by May also provided one to every 3rd grade student. For the 20-21 school year every Kindergarten student through 12th grade student will be assigned a Chromebook. Every PK3 and PK4 student will be assigned a Kindle Fire. Every device will allow every one of our teachers to provide asynchronous instruction along with some synchronous instruction embedded within the asynchronous instruction. 

“Thank you Vanguard Academy Board of Directors for the foresight the last three years that allows for everyone of our students to have a device in their hands. Vanguard Academy families without Broadband will also have a hot spot waiting for their child as every family was surveyed March through May and the Charter School purchased broad band/hotspots thanks to the school systems GEAR UP Grant. Every device will allow students access to asynchronous instruction and also access to every technological program Vanguard Academy provides every child.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows state Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg.

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