Hidalgo Co. orders remote learning at all schools

By Matt Wilson and Francisco E. Jiménez

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County pumped the brakes on beginning in-person class locally Tuesday, issuing an order that prevented both private and public schools from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade from returning to campus until after Sept. 27.

A release from the county says Dr. Ivan Melendez, in his capacity as the Hidalgo County local health authority, issued the order, which requires instruction to be provided through virtual, remote, or distance learning only.

Administrators, teachers, and staff may conduct or facilitate the remote learning process, or other operations while on campus provided they follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Those guidelines include social distancing and wearing facial coverings at all times, the county ordered.

“I commend Dr. Melendez for putting the safety of our students, teachers and district staff first,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez wrote in a news release Tuesday. “As our numbers continue to rise, it is vital that we protect our children and our teachers. Until we can get a better handle on this virus we must continue to keep our distance from one another.”

Schools will also be prevented from hosting any school-sponsored events and activities, such as clubs, sports, fairs, exhibitions, and academic or athletic competitions, until after on-campus instruction resumes, the release stated.

At least two weeks before resuming on-campus instruction, each school district must develop and submit a plan to parents and the public for their re-opening.

McAllen ISD School Board President Conrado Alvarado said representatives from local districts met with Cortez on Tuesday about delaying a return to campus.

“All the superintendents who did all the talking on the call pretty much said the same thing — that we need to start the school year with distance learning to protect our students, our staff and to try to reduce the surge we’ve had here recently,” he said. “We’ve all been kind of asking for help in declaring a public health emergency. That would allow us, the school districts, to go virtual learning to start the school district and not risk funding.”

Alvarado says action on behalf of the county will allow districts to switch to a virtual curriculum.

“He indicated that he’s going to take action here pretty soon. Once he takes action, that allows the districts, such as McAllen, to go to the next phase, which will probably be distance learning,” he said.

Hidalgo County municipalities had begun to take action on the matter for themselves. The cities of Edinburg, Pharr, San Juan, Mission, Palmview and Hidalgo all took action Tuesday to delay or halt a return to in-school instruction, although most of their actions suspend in-person instruction until further notice, unlike the county’s, which only suspends it until after Sept. 27.

Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina said the city council’s vote to suspend in-person instruction until further notice was unanimous and in accordance with the district’s wishes.

“The district agrees with the City of Edinburg’s order to require at-home instruction for our students for the upcoming school year,” the district wrote in a statement. “After listening to the concerns from our Board of Trustees, parents, and staff, the district is focusing on the best way to provide a high-quality level of remote instruction for our students and a safe working environment for our employees.”

Mayor Armando O’Caña of Mission said that a unanimous vote of the city council prohibited in-person instruction within their city limits until further notice as well Tuesday.

The cities of Pharr and San Juan suspended it until further notice as well.

“The main reason why we called for this resolution is just the mere fact that, as we all know, what’s happening around not only here in our area but all over the Valley, the spike in numbers of COVID-19 have been increasing tremendously,” San Juan Mayor Mario Garza said. “It’s a very serious matter. I just felt that this was the proper thing to do for the safety of our community.”

La Joya ISD passed a resolution delaying the start of in-person instruction by three weeks.

“Our board of trustees and administration feel that the state of Texas has not effectively given us the right to operate and open our schools as we see fit and safe for our employees. Therefore, one of the things that our board of trustees did yesterday is they delayed on-campus instruction for three weeks — something that TEA has allowed. As of now, one of the things our board is asking of our local leaders is for you to come together, take action by issuing orders prohibiting in-person instruction until it is safe for our students and teachers to return to campus,” Superintendent Gisela Saenz said.

Monitor staff writer Berenice Garcia contributed to this report.