Onward to 2021

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Remote learning, working from home, social distancing.

These are just a few of the phrases we all became familiar with as the last year unraveled.

As stated by one of the greatest thinkers and scientists of our century, Stephen Hawking, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” In 2020, it would be a phrase that more than ever held meaning and relevance around the world.

After Dec. 31 2019, COVID-19 took everyone by surprise and normal life for everyone was reduced to quarantines, social distancing, and uncertainty. Technology would keep us informed and connected in a way we weren’t used to. In fact, it would bring us closer together.

Public education, business, health systems, and activities in general looked for a way to get ahead in the midst of uncertainty. In many cases, they did it successfully.

With the immediate two-week lockdown across the state, essential businesses rose to the occasion and kept us all afloat, improvising with every day that went by. Small business owners were forced to think outside the box and figure out how to cater to their everyday customer while following CDC guidelines.

Retail shops allowed customers to shop by appointment to limit the number of people in the store and some transitioned into e-commerce sites with curbside pickup. Local bakeries and restaurants pushed for delivery and curbside, as well, signing up for third-party delivery services like GrubHub, Favor, and DoorDash.

Event planners and decorators got creative as drive-by celebrations became a thing of the present. Though people were social distancing, they were still able to come together this way and feel that support from their loved ones.

More and more people turned to the outdoors, visiting bike and nature trails across the Rio Grande Valley.

With people working remotely, families spent more time with each other as they tried to set boundaries between work and life.

Individuals became more self-aware about their mental health and ways to care for themselves as the state of the world was unwritten.

“Although social distancing has limited the amount of physical contact people get, remaining engaged with loved ones over the phone or internet has helped nurture human connection,” said Dr. Alfonso Mercado, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

In regards to mental health, he said having a strong network of support — even remotely — has been essential for many.

“In addition to human connection, practicing self-care has helped sustain mental wellness. Taking care of one’s well-being can help reduce your stress and produce positive feelings,” Mercado said. “Self-care involves being kind to oneself, obtaining adequate sleep, nourishing your body with a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and exercising and stretching, among others.”

In addition to mental health awareness, education was greatly impacted by the virus.

Many sudden changes affected schools in the spring of 2020. Teachers across the Valley, state, and nation were asked to relearn a new form of instruction as the coronavirus spread around the world.

The greatest change was the switch to remote learning.

“We had dabbled a bit with remote learning and online, but we did not have a system in place that was designed for remote instruction,” said Alicia Noyola, Harlingen CISD chief academic officer.

As bad as the virus is, Noyola said it accelerated a lot of systems for learning, remote, and hybrid instruction. She hopes that by the summer, the district will be able to switch gears fully and transition back into face-to-face instruction.

“I think that the biggest takeaway for me was that you can never replace the value of a teacher and the value of the interaction that are critical for the success of students,” Noyola said. “We are so proud of all of our teachers. In spite of it all, they never wavered.”

With the two versions of the coronavirus vaccine officially out as of December 2020, things are expected to change in 2021. Closing the achievement gap between students remotely and hopefully face to face down the line is a priority.

Javier De Leon, who served as the executive vice president of government affairs at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen at the time of this interview, said teachers adapted overnight.

“They’ve had to reinvent teaching as they knew it,” he said.

In order to help assist educators on the frontlines, all school districts called for outside expertise, professional development, weekly meetings, and constant access to information technology services.

“For every challenge, there is a positive opportunity. We all know that the future is going to be incorporating technology in instruction,” De Leon said. “We are years ahead of where we’d be if it wasn’t for the pandemic. We are years ahead with our virtual teaching and learning — we will continue to improve and adapt.”

In the business sector, we saw an abrupt halt as non-essential businesses shut down for the first few weeks in the spring. After the lockdown order was lifted, businesses reopened, adapting their entire model to comply with CDC guidelines. Many continue to implement these rules as coronavirus cases persist across the Valley.

“The pandemic did not discriminate against any one specific industry,” said Sergio Contreras, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. “Industries were able to navigate to the water either by remapping how they conducted business or they were essential.”

Contreras recognizes that there is still uncertainty in 2021. However, businesses now have more experience in coping with the pandemic. Things will be difficult in the sense of not knowing how the vaccine will impact life as we know it, he said. He is optimistic that local businesses will continue following CDC guidelines to protect the community.

Another sector that we saw a visible change in was the construction industry.

Ramiro Garza Jr., president of Noble Development, shared his experience during the first few months of the pandemic.

“Early on in March when everything started as far as changes with the shutdown orders, the challenge was the uncertainty of how long the shutdown was going to last,” he said. “Everything came to a standstill.”

Fortunately, Noble was able to continue operating, keeping employees and serving clients. Though the service sector was impacted, growth was visible in the commercial construction industry.

 With the new social distancing practices in place, a lot of restaurants closed their dining areas temporarily and focused more on serving customers through delivery, drive-thus, or curbside services. H-E-B stores, banks, and franchise restaurants are just a few of the entities that adapted and restructured their operation systems to move forward.

Though 2020 was a year of loss and challenges, there were silver linings. One of the biggest lessons learned throughout it all was learning how resilient we are as a community.

Teachers, cashiers, and frontline medical personnel experienced firsthand what it meant to face the virus head on every single day. Travel nursing agencies deployed an army of travel nurses to help treat COVID patients in our hospitals as numbers of positive cases reached an all-time high in July and August.

The community welcomed the nurses in a warm embrace and hundreds of businesses all over the Valley sent care packages to DoubleTree Suites by Hilton McAllen, where they stayed during their time here.

Though there were patients in COVID units, many people were skeptical about setting foot in a hospital, fearing they would contract the virus. This was difficult to come to terms with, especially when patients who were waiting to go into the emergency room were those who could not physically afford to prolong treatment and care.

Despite all of this, Matt Wolthoff, CEO of Harlingen Medical Center, saw the Valley come together in a way not many of us have had the opportunity to experience.

He says that one of the biggest takeaways was the advancement in telemedicine. It isn’t a new concept by any means, but it is definitely something providers realized could be streamlined.

“I think those in the Rio Grande Valley can be very, very proud of the capability and the resiliency of its medical professional work,” said Wolthoff. “I think it’s pretty remarkable that the health systems came together to take care of our community and step up to the challenge. All the systems really pulled together and collaborated more than ever, especially those in Cameron County.”

One of the biggest challenges? Mental health support for medical professionals.

“We’ve got to be better about providing resources and treating the emotional well-being of our staff to be able to continue to take care of more patients as they come in,” he added. “They’re working around the clock and unfortunately, you lose patients. They were exposed to a lot. That whole concept really became one of the major lessons from being involved in a long-lasting pandemic.”

“More than nine months have passed since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Hundreds of millions of people have lived through lockdowns,” Mercado said. “Many have made the abrupt shift to working and schooling from home; millions have lost jobs. The future looks uncertain. We don’t know yet when, or if, our societies might return to normal or what kind of permanent changes the pandemic will leave.”

One thing we know, he says, is that most of us in the developed world were forced to rely on technology even more than we were already doing so — and the skills that we acquired are likely to help us thrive in many aspects.

After a year of dealing with unforeseen events, we can only hope to have learned and move forward. There are still uncertainties that lie ahead, but the biggest factor is overcoming them as a community.

Some people have already returned to restaurants and bars, weddings and funerals, vacations and celebrations. But it’s less clear if we will continue to wear masks, use hand sanitizer, and check temperatures forever. An even bigger question is whether we will continue to work remotely from home.

“Now that many companies have been working remotely, it would not be surprising if many decide to continue to work from home. Most employees appreciate flexibility, especially those with long commute times,” Mercado said. “However, over time, face-to-face interaction is required to facilitate collaboration, build relationships, solve complex challenges, and generate ideas. Even worse, continuous remote work extends the workday, diffuses work-life boundaries, and reduces mental wellbeing.”

What are some of the biggest changes you noticed in 2020 and believe are here to stay in 2021? #JoinTheConversation at facebook.com/rgvisionmagazine.