PHARR, Texas – As many Rio Grande Valley schools move to reopen in the coming weeks, Vanguard Academy is being recognized for the great lengths they are going to ensure the safety of their students and staff amidst COVID-19.

Narciso Garcia, superintendent of the charter school system, led the effort to produce plexiglass sneeze guards for every student desk in the district. 

“As we come back in different phases, we’re really going to be ready because we’re not just having the sanitation and the disinfecting and the machines and all that, but we also have another level which is the sneeze guard where the students are going to be sitting on a daily basis,” said Garcia.

In its guidance for operating schools during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest installing the protective desk shieldsin areas where maintaining social distance will be difficult. But, Garcia balked at the price tag after hearing of some school districts paying upwards of $1 million to outfit their classrooms. He says that he then approached Vanguard Academy’s maintenance supervisor, Jesus Herrera, to see if it was possible to manufacture the barriers themselves. After some research and collaboration with other staff, Herrera and his team built two machines capable of producing the sneeze guards for the entire student body. 

“Mr. Herrera and his team deserve a lot of credit,” said Garcia. “I presented to them the idea, and they invented the machine themselves, and they invented the different tools that were used to bend the plexiglass to make them into the sneezeguards for the student desks. So, I’m really proud of them because I don’t know of another school system that they themselves made the sneezeguards … to save hundreds of thousands of dollars or several million dollars. We did that ourselves.”

Garcia says Vanguard used funding they received through the CARES Act for the project, which ended up costing around $180,000, including the materials used to construct the machines and bending apparatuses. The operation has been so successful that Garcia says he has been approached by other school districts from as far as Corpus Christi to see if Vanguard’s maintenance crew might assist them in making their own sneeze guards. Unfortunately, because of time constraints, Garcia says he can only point them in the right direction.

“Those are questions that have been asked – if we could allow for our staff to go over there and teach them or make the sneeze guards for them – but our maintenance team, we need them here,” said Garcia.

In the two weeks since starting, the crew has almost reached its goal of producing 7,000 sneeze guards. The trifolds measure 24 inches high and 48 inches long – bent to create two 14-inch side flaps with 20-inch middle section. Garcia says they plan to finish the project by the end of the month as he prepares for phasing in teachers and staff in October.

“We’ve been in this situation since March,” said Garcia. “So, it’s tough on our teachers. It’s tough on our staff members. So, we want to make sure we do it right.”

Students, on the other hand, will not receive face-to-face instruction until November. Vanguard filed a waiver with the Texas Education Agency for an additional four weeks for asynchronous remote instruction, which covers the month of October. Garcia says he hopes the extra time will allow staff to acclimate themselves before students are reintroduced into the classrooms.

Ultimately, parents still have the option to keep their children at home. But, to those that opt to send their kids back, Garcia assures a safe environment full of thermal scanners, electrostatic sprayers and, now, sneeze guards – the investment for which goes beyond the school walls.

“If we keep the 5,000 students safe, the 500-plus employees safe, we’re keeping their families safe,” said Garcia. “So, you must look at it that way.”

For more information about Vanguard Academy, click hereto visit their website.

Editor’s Note: The photos in the above slideshow were taken at Vanguard Academy by reporter Patricia Martinez.

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