The COVID-19 pandemic hit the RGV hard and without warning just over a year ago. For school districts and school administrators, that meant quickly scrambling during spring break to enact plans that protected students, faculty, and instructors.
Schools went from instruction at brick and mortar campuses to a new virtual setting to mitigate the virus.
Brownsville ISD Superintendent Dr. Rene Gutierrez says in his three decades of education, this was all new.
“Since the pandemic started it’s been very challenging because everything that we were going through we had never seen before in our lives — there was no warning light,” Gutierrez said. “This is my 34th year as an educator and never before had I seen something like that. We were preparing and adjusting every day. It was a different way to run our schools.”
Despite not being able to hold in-person classes, he said his district prioritized keeping in touch with students.
“We were able to keep our schools operating,” Gutierrez said. “One of the things we wanted to make sure of was to keep everyone safe but also to stay in contact with our students. As time went by last spring, it was more evident that students weren’t going to come back because it wasn’t safe. We never wanted to lose contact. That was a priority — serving our students.”
One silver lining Gutierrez mentioned was the imperative task of getting devices and internet access to students so they could participate in online or virtual learning.
“It really pushed us to get technology into the hands of our children,” he said. “Getting them devices, getting them hotspots — maybe they didn’t have connectivity. It put us on a fast tract. Of course, they were challenging times because some of our kids live in areas with low connectivity, but we did our best to accommodate them.”
Individuals that stepped up during Brownsville ISD’s COVID response were Deputy Superintendent Dr. Nellie Cantu, Director of Employee Benefits, Risk Management, and Safety Dustin Garza, and Alonso Guerrero, who went from serving as a school nurse to health services director.
Around the state, school districts received correspondence and guidelines from multiple sources from the CDC at the national level as well as the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, Texas Education Agency, Cameron County, and the City of Brownsville.
“Obviously it was a shock to everybody,” Garza said. “A lot of meetings, a lot of debriefings, a lot of guidance from the local and federal government. It was just a matter of all our brains coming together and creating a plan. The summer was a lot of different ideas — adjusting to mandates and things coming out of the state.”
On the flip side of the pandemic was the effort to test and now vaccinate the population. BISD stepped up in that field as well. Guerrero has been a big part of the coordination efforts as he moved into a larger role within the district.
“I was a school nurse but during COVID I helped out with the COVID testing for district employees and then students,” Guerrero said. “In January the position opened to become the director of health services. Then we started assisting the city and the county with vaccines and we haven’t stopped since.”
Now the district is taking up the vaccine effort by signing up as a distributor of shots.
“We have about 86 percent of our staff administered with the vaccine,” Guttirrez said in early April. “Our next step is we applied as a school district to be a provider of vaccines. That means we can get them from the federal government and do our own administration of vaccines. That’s going to help us because perhaps our next step, once we are able to vaccinate all of our staff, is to move onto students that qualify as well as parents that qualify. It’s an ongoing process.”