PHARR, Texas – As the nation reflects on the year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic – marked by grim milestones and promising breakthroughs – many are looking forward to a return to normalcy. 

Among them are parents and school administrators who hope to see students back in their classrooms. In Rio Grande Valley, where the virus has hit hardest in the state and where the digital divide has been called a “crisis,” moving to increase in-person instruction has required school districts to perform a tough balancing act. One district that has risen to the challenge is Vanguard Academy.

Narciso Garcia, superintendent for the charter schools, says that he and the school board have made many hard decisions since last March, with their top priority being to prevent students from slipping through the cracks. While it is estimated that close to 3 million children were lost in the virtual shuffle last year, Garcia says that Vanguard has accounted for every one of theirs.

“We’ve connected with all of our students,” said Garcia. “… We haven’t lost any. … The 4,890 kids we have, we’ve accounted for them. We accounted for them since day one. … What helped us is we stayed engaged with our families since March 13th of last year.”

They achieved this by keeping in constant communication with students and their families and working to meet their needs. The district continued to pass out homework packets, making sure they reached and were understood by their recipients, and provided computers for all their students. They also handed out 500 hotspots and opened campus parking lots so that students could access the school’s Wi-Fi. For some families without hotspots, the district even paid for internet service to their homes – all a great effort to truly bridge the digital divide.

Another part of their engagement included serving meals throughout the pandemic. In addition to breakfast and lunch provided by the school, families in the community could also pickup meals through Vanguard’s partnered events with the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, H-E-B and Walmart. Since last March, Vanguard Academy has distributed hundreds of thousands of meals.

“Before the pandemic 25 percent – one in four children in the nation – were going to sleep hungry,” said Garcia. “… Although we’re in the business of educating young people and children, we see it also that if we feed them, they’ll want to learn virtually from home or they’ll want to learn here in our campuses face-to-face. And so, it’s our duty and our moral responsibility and obligation as a school system to stay open and feed the children that attend Vanguard Academy.”

The district also worked to ensure that its faculty felt safe returning to in-person instruction. This involved securing vaccines for their 510 employees. Garcia says that, so far, Vanguard has received 445 vaccines for its staff and expects more to be rolled out soon. He expressed his gratitude to the City of Edinburg and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance for obtaining and apportioning the vaccines for the district.

With the majority of its staff vaccinated, Vanguard is much closer to reaching its goal of having 10 students in each classroom by the end of the school year. To that end, protective measures such as social distancing, wearing masks, administering temperature checks and supplying students with plexiglass desk barriers have been implemented. The district will also update its facilities following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. The heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems of its four schools will be outfitted with bi-polar ionization air cleaners and air filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) of 13, a rating that denotes 85 percent efficiency in capturing particles the size of the COVID-19 virus. An air quality study on every building has also been commissioned to see what other precautions or adjustments the district may have to make. Garcia estimates all of this to be completed by the end of May.

Currently, only around 15 percent of students have returned for in-person instruction. Garcia says that will change next year as more people are vaccinated and the district pushes for increased physical class attendance. He says that while they have done all they can to aid students during the pandemic, nothing can replace the face-to-face classroom environment for reaching achievement goals and providing social interaction.

“Although we never lost contact with our students … there’s still gaps because there’s nothing like being in a classroom eight hours a day as opposed to being at home all day,” said Garcia. “And, there’s also social, emotional concerns that we have.”

Students that have been struggling academically or socially have many resources available to them. Money from the district’s $3.7 million School Climate Transformation Grant, was used to hire a school psychologist, social workers and an intervention specialist who are available to address students’ emotional health. Funds from its $10.6 million GEAR UP grant will be used for curriculum writing and hiring more summer school teachers for this and next year. Garcia says by the summer of 2022, Vanguard wants every student caught up and back on track.

“There’s more than enough funding to help close these gaps and to meet the social, emotional needs of our children,” said Garcia. “We just have to make sure that we do our part and make sure that we’re intentional with the gaps that our students are needing to be closed.”

As the nation speculates about its post-pandemic future, Vanguard Academy schools are navigating toward some semblance of familiarity, a comfort to students, faculty and parents alike.

“Vanguard Academy is here to stay,” said Garcia. “Vanguard Academy is here to support you and your family in any way that we can.”

Vanguard Academy charter schools are located in Pharr, Alamo and Edinburg. For more information, visit their website here.

To honor student and staff family members who have died of this past year due to COVID-19 and other illnesses, Vanguard Academy will be holding a memorial service at the Pharr/Vanguard Academy Nature & Birding Center on Friday, March 26.