HARLINGEN, Texas – One of the most vocal supporters of remote instruction in the Rio Grande Valley is urging Gov. Greg Abbott to sign Senate Bill 15 into law.

Ron Whitlock is a former educator and state president of the Texas School Public Relations Association (TSPRA). He also served as part of a four-member cabinet appointed by the Corpus Christi ISD superintendent.

SB 15, authored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, allows Texas school districts and charter schools that provide remote instruction to be fully funded through the state’s Foundation School Program. However, the schools must have met state accountability standards.

“My message to Governor Abbott is do the right thing: sign into law SB 15 so that our schools can start providing remote learning again,” Whitlock said. “The Covid-19 delta variant is so contagious and is causing many children to be admitted into hospital. We simply have to give our school districts the option of re-introducing remote learning.”

Whitlock, pictured above with Gov. Abbott, said he believes Abbott and the Texas Education Agency could have provided the funding for school districts to reintroduce remote instruction without having to wait for the passage of SB 15.

“We could have saved time and had more virtual learning programs in place had the governor and the TEA acted sooner. But, better late than never.”

Whitlock said some Valley school districts, such as PSJA ISD, have found pots of money to reintroduce distance learning. Others, such as Lyford CISD and Raymondville ISD, have not had the resources to do so. With the passage of SB 15 they can do so safe in the knowledge remote instruction will be funded by the state.

At a recent news conference on healthcare hosted by the City of Harlingen, Whitlock asked about remote instruction. The news conference was held before the passage of SB 15.

“As an educator and past president to the Texas School Public Relations Association, my question is for Dr. Michael Mohun, the city of Harlingen health authority, and Bill Stephens, chief nursing officer of Valley Baptist Health System.

“Tuesday, Lyford Consolidated Independent School District, and Raymondville Independent School District, both reported that children in their schools had contracted the more contagious delta variant of Covid-19. Are you at all concerned because Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency are now refusing to fund remote learning at home by our children as was done previously, which now forces them to go to school even though there are no approved vaccines?

Dr. Mohun responded: “As a governor, I think you need to let each system decide on how they want to approach something. I think remote learning, from the feedback I get, has not been successful and I think putting children back into the classroom is important.”

Whitlock pressed Mohun on the urgency of reintroducing remote learning. “I think you put public safety above money. And I think you do what’s right for your children and eventually it will work out,” Mohun responded.

Valley Baptist’s Stephens responded to Whitlock in this way: “I echo exactly what Dr. Mohun said. My mom has been a teacher 40-plus years and she did say remote learning was extremely difficult. I think we can go back to education, masking, which I know we talked about, each individual area doing that, and also teaching the kids (the importance of) hand-washing. This (the coronavirus) might be something we have to live with. Why not start them off learning how to do this on a daily basis.”

Editor’s Note: The Harlingen news conference was held to discuss the ongoing hospital capacity overload and staffing shortage in Cameron County. Other topics discussed included testing, vaccines, and the Regional Infusion Center. Here is a podcast of the event:

Angry grandmother

A grandmother and former teacher living in the Valley who asked that her name be withheld also came out strongly in favor of online learning. She told the Rio Grande Guardian:

“I am a Texas certified for life teacher and a grandmother of a currently stressed out student. He had no stress last school year when his school implemented remote learning. And he got good grades and even excelled through remote learning,” she said.

“Governor Abbott and the TEA are hurting children mentally and stopping their chances for achieving their goals for higher education by taking away their capability of concentrating on their classes with less stress about COVID. They should never have unplugged remote or virtual learning that so many of our children need and want.”

The grandmother continued: “Many parents out there do not know that the public schools have been told by TEA that if the schools do use virtual or remote learning they will be financially  punished.”

The grandmother added: “I believe remote or virtual education is the future choice for parents with children, that thrive in that remote learning atmosphere. Stop the politics, Governor Abbott, and sign the remote learning bill today so we can deal with the safety and mental health of our children when they need a safe place to learn.”

Raise Your Hand Texas is an education advocacy group funded by in part by Charles Butt of HEB. The group’s director of policy, Bob Popinski said of SB 15: 

“Like others, Raise Your Hand Texas is concerned about the quality and effectiveness of full-time virtual instruction for a vast majority of our students. We recognize virtual learning is necessary during the pandemic, but we are concerned about the long-term impacts on both the academic and social-emotional needs of students in our public schools. This is why we must monitor the impacts of remote instruction until the Texas Commission on Virtual Education is able to present its recommendations.”

Popinski added: “Raise Your Hand Texas appreciates both the members of the Senate and House focusing on remote student instruction and funding during the special session. This bill (SB 15) is necessary during such a difficult time for students and teachers and we welcome a continued conversation regarding the best learning environments for students beyond the pandemic.”

Mental health concerns

Whitlock said he “wholeheartedly agreed” with Popinski because of what he experienced during his year as the elected statewide leader of TSPRA and while serving on organizations dealing with mental health.

Whitlock served as state chairman of the Volunteer Services State Council for 27 campuses statewide for the Texas Department of Mental Health & Mental Retardation (TDMHMR). There he advocated for mental health services at Corpus Christi State School, which catered for children living within a 15-county area stretching throughout south Texas from Brownsville to Corpus Christi to Victoria to Laredo.  He was elected as head of the school’s Volunteer Services Council.

Whitlock said that due to investigative journalism reports, he created public responsibility committees at 27 mental health facilities in order to advocate for clients being abused by staff. He said he did this in collaboration with TDMHMR board member Mary Holdsworth Butt and Commissioner Dr. David Wade. 

“The mental health of Texas families, can, does and will significantly deteriorate when the lives of their children are adversely affected. Case in point: 92 percent of the couples who – at the time that I represented them by advocating for them in Austin – had a child with mental illness, ultimately ended up in divorce. Myself included,” Whitlock said.

“According to a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 40 percent of Americans are currently, since the beginning of the pandemic, suffering from anxiety and depressive disorder, which is an increase of 300 percent.”

Editor’s Note: Podcast Editor Mario Muñoz contributed to this story from Harlingen, Texas.

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