One for the Books

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School districts in the Rio Grande Valley are preparing to wrap up a school year unlike any other — one that future generations of students will learn about in history books.

Districts quickly adapted to distribute devices for remote learning while adhering to guidelines and safety protocols to welcome some students back into classrooms.

McAllen ISD parents still have the choice whether to send their students in to learn on campus or keep them at home for remote instruction, said Mark May, communication specialist at the district. McAllen ISD started issuing free electronic learning devices to all students in 2011, lessening the transition pains to remote learning at the end of the 2019-20 school year when the pandemic hit the RGV.

To ensure everyone stayed connected no matter where they may be learning, the district also provided internet hotspots to students with slow internet or other web challenges. On McAllen campuses, a number of safety protocols have been followed for the 2020-21 school year, including everything from disinfecting spaces and best hand-washing practices to restroom capacities and breakfast and lunch instructions.

McAllen ISD continues to plan what the 2021-22 school year will look like — and whether students will be in classrooms, remote, or some combination of both. Other districts hope for in-person learning in the fall.

“I’m very hopeful that with the progress that’s being made on vaccines that we will be in a great position in the fall to have all our students back — and getting back to our core business of educating students,” said Dr. Alicia Noyola, superintendent of Harlingen CISD.

When vaccinations opened up throughout Texas, so did the possibility of normalcy returning.

Everyone over the age of 18 became eligible to receive a vaccine on March 29 in Texas. Pfizer vaccines are authorized for those 16 and older. Texas started prioritizing teachers and all school district staff March 3.

“I have been so blessed with the support of our Harlingen community,” Noyola said. “The week after the state moved to prioritize school district personnel, by the end of the following Friday, everyone in our district that wanted to be vaccinated was vaccinated. We were just so fortunate that we were getting calls from local pharmacies and other medical centers saying, ‘if you need to send us people, we’re ready.’”

She added that the relief personnel experienced was palpable.

“I heard people say, ‘it’s like a weight’s lifted off my shoulders,’” she said. “When that concern to some degree is addressed, our teachers can even more so focus on the work of supporting our children and moving them forward with their education and other needs.”

Mission CISD also experienced a similar level of support from the community when its teachers and staff became eligible to be vaccinated. The district partnered with Hidalgo County, the City of Mission, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, and Richard’s Pharmacy to roll out vaccines for personnel and their families.

“We’ve been blessed — our staff came together,” said Dr. Carol G. Perez, Mission CISD superintendent. “Even for these clinics that we’re collaborating with the county, our staff members stepped up to the plate. Our nurses, our clerical assistants, our technology staff said, ‘we’re ready to go help.’ We’ve loaned out our staff to be on the front lines and assist with the data entry, with the injections and so forth.

“We didn’t have to ask. They volunteered because they believe that it’s very important that our community be safe. And if our community is safe, then our children will be able to come to school.”

While about 8 percent of students have opted in for in-person instruction, Mission CISD personnel have been particularly focused on transition students — such as fifth-graders, eighth-graders, and seniors — to make sure they don’t fall behind. All instructional staff returned to teach from their classrooms April 5.

“One of the high school principals told me, ‘you were right — the minute our students started to see more students in the classrooms, we started receiving calls that they, too, want to come in,” Perez said. “We’re excited about that.”

Mission CISD utilizes a number of safety protocols for their in-person students — including a quality disinfectant they previously only used during regular flu season or outbreaks of stomach bugs. Now, they mist the facilities as often as twice a day.

Harlingen CISD has also worked hard to make their students safe on campuses, distributing masks for the students, adding desk shields, and positioning hand-sanitizing and hand-washing stations throughout the halls. The district currently has a 50-50 split of in-person and remote learners.

“It certainly has been a learning year for everybody — students and staff,” Noyola said. “I’m really excited at what the fall may bring. Our hope is that, barring unforeseen circumstances, that our state, our nation will be in a position that we will be able to come back into face-to-face instruction.”

Amy Casebier