BROWNSVILLE — Many school districts across the Rio Grande Valley are making their final preparations to return to on-campus fall sports strength and conditioning workouts and practices in the coming days and weeks in what will be the culmination of a long journey back to the courts and fields of play amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

For district officials like Brownsville ISD Athletic Director Gilberto Leal, the complicated conversations surrounding the safe and eventual return to high school athletics that began in May are now paying dividends, as school districts throughout the Valley receive and invest in innovative new equipment and technology meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 and aid in a safe return to competition.

“We saw, as a district, the amount of stress that there was in trying to find PPE (personal protective equipment), equipment, sanitation, hand sanitizer and things like that. Everybody in the entire nation was trying to get those products, so even if you went to the supermarket you couldn’t find anything,” Leal said. “We got on the phone talking to some people, trying to research some things and we found a company that has a product called Virolyze that has been around for over 20 years, but the focus had never been on using this product for athletics (until now). That company partnered up with some other people to create this solution and help athletic departments out.”

The district purchased the innovative equipment from Houston-based company Virolyze, which developed a sanitizing solution — composed of naturally occurring compounds and has been safety approved by the EPA and FDA — dispensed as a one-second mist and the tunnel-shaped frame that allows athletes and spectators to pass through quickly and safely while simultaneously helping to keep the playing surface clean and disinfected.

“It’s a huge feat. We’re trying to find ways that make athletes and parents comfortable coming back to school, so I think our last Virolyze shipment of our misting tunnels are coming in today (Friday). We were trying to find a product we could use that would be athlete-friendly, uniform-friendly,” Leal said. “It was a win-win for us, but we weren’t sure how much we were going to need so we got ahead of the curve. We purchased this solution in 55-gallon barrels and we bought about 11 gallons for each of our schools to start with.

“We wanted to make sure that when we’re in the middle of our seasons that we don’t have to be in panic mode to safely sanitize our locker rooms, weight rooms and equipment.”

Brownsville ISD also acquired hydrostatic misters to disinfect locker rooms and other closed workout areas as well as several sanitizing misting tunnels, which are cutting edge in both application and design.

Leal said that each of BISD’s six high schools will each receive a pair of the Virolyze misting tunnels, one for each school’s boys and girls athletic programs respectively.

Brownsville ISD is the first Texas school district to invest in the innovative new equipment, but now other Valley schools are expressing interest in the misting tunnels, which are also being used by a handful of NFL and NCAA DI football teams.

The misting tunnels’ sanitary spray is advertised to be an effective disinfectant for four to six hours per application.

Other districts have also gone to great lengths to outfit existing equipment in ways that will conform with COVID-19 mitigation procedures set by the University Interscholastic League, Texas Education Agency, CDC and other state and local health and safety guidelines.

Athletic trainers at Mercedes ISD, for example, retrofitted its 10-gallon sideline coolers with “touchless spouts … that allow for safe refilling of bottles or cups without contact,” according to a Twitter post with photos from the group.

Other districts have chosen to invest in new equipment deemed necessary to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Mission CISD and Weslaco ISD schools secured no-touch, forehead-scanning thermometers to help transition back to summer strength and conditioning workouts in early June, which will play an important role in each district’s return-to-play playbook this time around too.

Similarly, McAllen ISD found an innovative approach for its sideline mitigation strategy, opting to invest in a line of water coolers operated via foot pedal to combat the spread of the virus on shared surfaces.

“We’re learning from (other districts) every day, even with the little things like water bottles,” McAllen ISD board member Conrado Ito Alvarado said. “We’re looking at every aspect of it from the capacity of our stadium to whether to allow bands on the field.”

Brownsville ISD, McAllen ISD and Mission CISD are just a few of many Valley school districts also vowing to provide routine rapid-result testing for COVID-19 as part of their respective COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.

Pace Early College High School Viking Head Coach Danny Pardo uses an electric aerosol disinfectant fogger as he demonstrates what preventative measures will be used to aid against the spread of COVID-19 during the commencement of high school sports in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

“Our school district and health services department continue to monitor the current situation and will ensure all health and safety protocols are followed,” PSJA ISD Athletic Director Orlando Garcia said in a written statement. “We are blessed to have free COVID-19 testing at several of our PSJA schools where (our) athletes and families can take the test required before joining us next week.”

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the RGV in early March, it appears possible for districts to secure enough reliable rapid-results COVID-19 tests for a return to competition in mid-to-late October to look feasible.

One of the rapid-result COVID-19 test manufacturers some Valley school districts and businesses are turning to is called Healgen, which offers a swab test that claims to yield results in as few as 15 minutes. Now, schools and school districts will be able to test student-athletes and coaches before practices, games and tournaments, making a potential return to play appear attainable again.

“It’s going to be able to look at whether a student or anybody has COVID in real-time… without a machine,” Alvarado said. “So potentially, you would be able to test a volleyball team or a football team in a quicker manner.”

While acquiring enough rapid-result tests may prove difficult for some of the Valley’s larger school districts given the ubiquitous demand, for districts like Brownsville and McAllen ISD, who together oversee athletics at nine high schools and 16 middle schools, early preparation is beginning to pay off.

“Literally thousands of kids are going to be in our facilities on a daily basis. We were able to secure this, very easily I guess you could say before word got out that these things could actually be used in athletic facilities,” Leal said. “I’m thankful to our administration here in Brownsville that they’ll allow us to be innovative and get these things out there.”