Creatively Connected

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The first day of school. Friday night lights. Homecoming dances.

These represent just a handful of milestones high schoolers in the Rio Grande Valley may not be able to enjoy for the time being due to COVID-19. The pandemic has reshaped education and campus life across the region — and the world.

“I believe the biggest challenge is the lack of being able to connect face-to-face with friends, colleagues, and missing out on the social life that a school brings to students,” Nelinda Villarreal, fine arts director and academic UIL at Edinburg CISD, wrote in an email. “Our teachers are finding ways to bring a little bit of the social activities into the virtual world of learning.”

Extracurricular activities are a great way for students to pursue their interests while boosting life skills like communication, time management, work ethic, and more, she added.

“ECISD prides itself in providing opportunities for students to experience learning in many different settings,” Villarreal wrote.

This includes phasing in in-person extracurricular activities like band, cheerleading, drill and dance team, and fall sports, she added — but with additional safety caveats. All participants will be screened upon arrival at practices and given a wristband denoting permission to be present. Based on the activity, face masks, social distancing, and other health and safety initiatives will be implemented.

Though participation levels in extracurricular activities are down this semester, that doesn’t mean that students eager to pursue their interests will miss out.

“Even if one child wants to participate in live practices, we are here to instruct,” Villarreal wrote. “Our teachers are very passionate about this.”

At the university level, extracurricular participation and student life events can be hallmarks of a true college experience. Staff members at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are working hard to keep students safe while still promoting involvement.

“UTRGV has kept the university community updated by sending frequent emails to the campus community and establishing a designated website (utrgv.edu/coronavirus) with helpful information,” UTRGV’s Director for Leadership and Mentoring Jodie Dominguez and Assistant Director for Leadership and Mentoring Sabina Ramirez wrote in an email.

In fact, this fall 2020 semester set an enrollment record for the institution with 32,618 students — an increase of 11.5 percent over last year.

But among the different learning options available — including accelerated online programs, hybrid and reduced seating classes, traditional face-to-face classes, interactive video classes, and online asynchronous and synchronous classes — staff members grappled with another challenge: keeping students close in a time when distance is required.

“We want students to know that it is still possible to connect with others even though we are conducting things virtually,” Dominguez and Ramirez wrote.

Extracurricular and student life activities have evolved online. Students have had a chance to participate in everything from virtual movie nights and hangouts to virtual involvement fairs and conferences. The university utilizes a program called V Link, which connects more than 250 student organizations. This space also hosts event announcements from organizations and campus departments, functioning as a master calendar for everything students can still take part in online. To date, more than 400 events have been registered on V Link, including a virtual motivational speech by American Ninja Warrior City Finalist Hoan Do — an event attended by over 150 students.

“We are being creative and thinking outside of the box to reach our students,” Dominguez and Ramirez wrote. “Our social media has increased and we are learning new ways to engage.”

UTRGV’s Student Government Association, for example, broadcast its State of the Student Body Address (SOSBA) via Facebook Live. They later posted it on Instagram.

“In a way, we are being more successful in extending our reach with students because events such as SOSBA are easier to share,” Dominguez and Ramirez wrote.

Even as campuses and districts Valleywide take steps to adapt the student experience as best as they can, health and safety remain a priority.

“All individuals (parents, students, employees) can rest assured that ECISD has worked diligently to put all safety processes in place,” Villarreal wrote. “Their safety is important, as we are a family. Family takes care of each other.”

What extracurricular activities are you involved in and what does that look like for you during these times? #JoinTheConversation at facebook.com/rgvisionmagazine.