Just as kids in the Rio Grande Valley began to return to school this week, we learned that child Covid hospitalizations had tripled in Texas since just before Christmas.

While Texas is sending more children to the emergency room for Covid than any other state, Governor Abbott continues to interfere with schools and local leaders who are trying to do their job to keep their communities safe.

It’s such a dangerous way to lead a state that has already lost over 76,000 Texans to Covid, including over 6,000 in the RGV alone, especially as local officials struggle to prevent more sickness and death as the highly contagious Omicron variant overwhelms hospitals.

Given all of this, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the Hidalgo County school board members from PSJA ISD and Edcouch-Elsa ISD that I met with back in November. Those courageous local leaders are taking part in a lawsuit led by six RGV districts against Governor Abbott’s anti-public health order that prohibits schools from requiring masks in the classroom.

“These are our kids and our staff. It’s our community,” one PSJA board member told me. “We’re going to do what’s needed to keep them safe — every single time.”

That’s what I love about the Valley. In the absence of state leadership, the people of the RGV set the example of Texas resilience, initiative and strength — “every single time.”

When I met with the Hidalgo County health authority a couple of months ago, he told me that over 40% of Hidalgo residents are uninsured or underinsured, in large part because state leaders have stubbornly refused to expand Medicaid, leaving $100 billion of federal health care support on the table.

That’s left places like Mission, McAllen, and Edinburg more susceptible to fatal outcomes during Covid, so when Governor Abbott started usurping local control over public health measures last summer, RGV communities saw some of the highest Covid mortality rates in the country — to the point that local officials needed to bring in mobile morgues to handle the devastating level of death in these communities.

But with strong local leadership from local health officials, mayors, and county judges, RGV residents came together to look out for each other and come out of that crisis, and vaccination programs like the “Starr County Strong” campaign helped border communities achieve some of the highest vaccination rates in the country.

You see this leadership in RGV schools as well. While Governor Abbott tied the hands of school boards during the pandemic and delayed the release of billions of dollars in federal Covid funding for schools, three PSJA campuses were named among the most “pandemic resilient schools” in Texas this year. That includes PSJA Early College High School, which ranked #1 out of 80,000 schools for its academic resilience during the pandemic.

And while Governor Abbott vetoed rural broadband support legislation at the height of the pandemic, when students in the RGV were already struggling to keep up with school amid abysmal regional broadband speeds, Hidalgo County leaders partnered with local school districts to provide free public WiFi to more than 30,000 rural residents.

Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez told me that he’s also not waiting around for state leaders to get it right on things like broadband expansion. The city is investing $20 million to expand internet access to the nearly 50% of residents who lack it.

As a place neglected for decades by state and federal leaders alike, Brownsville’s poverty rate ranks near the highest in the nation, and its broadband connection rate ranks near the lowest. But Mayor Mendez says the city’s broadband project will help Brownsville cross its name off of both of those lists by helping students get ahead and incentivizing the creation of high-pay, high-quality jobs in that community.

Too often, state leaders talk about the border simply as a threat, as a place from which people are “coming to get us.” Officials like Governor Abbott come to places like Roma, Pharr, and Brownsville to pose for photos in front of the border, but then leave the people here to fend for themselves when it comes to navigating Covid, supporting students, expanding broadband, creating jobs, or even getting through the power grid failure that knocked the power out for millions during last February’s winter storm.

The good news is that if you’re looking for leadership in Texas, you’ll certainly find it in Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy, and Starr counties.

But imagine what those leaders could accomplish if they had a true partner in their governor.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. O’Rourke can be reached by email via: [email protected]

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Beto O’Rourke meeting with PSJA ISD board members.

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