RGV education leaders identify post-pandemic challenges that lay ahead

Eighth-grade English language arts teacher Maria Elena Abete explains the day’s work and prepares to go over the syllabus with her sixth period students using her laptop Tuesday on the first day of class at Stell Middle School. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Speakers at Teach For America’s “Resilient RGV” virtual panel Tuesday had a clear message: The COVID-19 pandemic may shape progress in the Rio Grande Valley, it may even slow it down, but it’s not going to stop it.

Discussing changes needed with regard to education and workforce development to build a more resistant Valley in a post-pandemic world, panelists listed challenges they are facing in those spheres and the solutions they envision overcoming them.

The discussion was moderated by University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Vice President Veronica Gonzales, and included panelists Texas Workforce Commission Commissioner for Labor Julian Alvarez III, Senior Director of Educate Texas/RGV FOCUS Rodney H. Rodriguez and state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa.

“One thing is clear — that the pandemic has changed the way that we learn and the way that we work, and while some things may return to how they were being done prior to the pandemic, some of these changes are gonna become a way of life for us, and they’re gonna be integrated into the way we were used to doing things,” Gonzales said during the discussion. “So flexibility, adaptability and resiliency are gonna be key in moving forward.”

The panelists cited a number of challenges faced by Valley students and educators, including lack of direction toward career paths, engagement with students and parents, informing students on further education options and poverty, both as a persistent challenge to education Valley leaders have faced for years and as a new problem created by the financial strains of the pandemic.

Panelists largely voiced confidence in tackling those problems, emphasizing the role of partnerships between the business community, legislators and educators.

They also talked at length about connectivity issues — a longtime Valley educational issue — and what the pandemic has done to fix that problem.

Some Valley school districts have reported that as much as half of their student bodies lack access to Wi-Fi at home this year. It’s a problem that was met with a patchwork response from districts, municipalities and Hidalgo County attempting to provide students with Wi-Fi.

“Especially in rural areas and the hardest to serve communities, we have really seen the impact that what we were not prepared for has come to fruition,” Rodriguez said, noting that several grassroot organizations have been working to provide internet to underserved areas.

COVID-19 has spurred leaders to find a solution to that problem, Alvarez said, prompting out-of-the box workarounds and causing the government to reduce barriers to funds.

“This pandemic has made it possible for us to be more creative,” he said. “The length of an application for a grant used to be so many days, maybe 45 days — we’ve shortened that up. It used to be five or six pages so that we could get every single detail that we needed. Now it’s like a one or two page application, because this money needs to be rolled out.”

Sen. Hinojosa said the region can also expect aid from the state.

“The state will be looking to set up a statewide plan so that we can help all the regions of the state have access to broadband,” he said, adding that a statewide solution would also open the door to federal funding.

After the pandemic, Rodriguez says he envisions remote learning to stick around and districts to use a mix of in-person and virtual instruction. He said improvements made in response to the pandemic will put Valley educators in a better position to extend learning opportunities across the region.

“From challenges come opportunities as well,” he said.

Rodriguez also cautioned that having Wi-Fi is not a silver bullet for the educational problems faced by the Valley’s rural and impoverished communities, many of whom are facing more financial stress than ever before.

“Can our families pay the lights? Can they pay the rent? Are they able to get food on the table?” Rodriguez asked, stressing the importance of those basic necessities to education. “So we really have to also focus — I mean it’s great and dandy that we’re gonna have all this hi-tech equipment, but if people can’t pay the lights, how are you gonna access this equipment?”