By TRAVIS M. WHITEHEAD
HARLINGEN — What a year.
The pandemic swept into the Valley last spring with a vengeance, throwing everything into disarray and forcing school districts to radically change the way they do business — and education.
Harlingen school district students had just left for Spring Break when COVID-19 struck. Campuses had closed with the understanding they’d open back up after Spring Break; students left many of their belongings and half-finished projects intending to pick up where they left off.
But the campuses didn’t open back up, and the students didn’t return to class, at least not in the traditional sense. As the raw reality of the pandemic set in, and the fear of so much uncertainty took hold, school board members, educators and administrators mobilized. Emergency sessions lasting late into the evening resulted in innovative plans to provide education and services to students online.
The result was School@Home in which teachers, administrators and staff created platforms and systems to offer online instruction to students with internet access at home. Those without access picked up packets of paper assignments.
The district quickly sent out an email explaining the new strategy.
“ Students and parents,” read the email. “Welcome to online learning provided by your secondary school campuses. We understand that this new type of learning may be new to you. Please know that as a member of the HCISD family we are here to support and guide you.”
A similar message went to elementary parents.
The district set up stations where parents and students could pick up digital devices so they could access the new online learning platform.
In response to the severity of the virus and the guidelines for social distancing, everything was thrown off the rails. High school proms were cancelled, and seniors had to settle for a virtual graduation ceremony. In other words, no walking across the stage.
Seniors throughout the district at once revealed their disappointment and optimism and their determination to persevere.
“ I think that the virtual graduation, while it is probably not everyone’s expected graduation, is a testament to how we have to adapt to the times,” said Catherine Duncan, 2020 valedictorian for Harlingen High School South.
The district opened some campuses briefly for summer enrichment and remediation, but closed again when the rate of COVID infection skyrocketed across the Valley. Plans and schedules changed rapidly according to rates of infection and more understanding of the virus.
When the district announced its plans to open Aug. 10 with some in-class instruction, teachers held fervent protests demanding 100 percent virtual classrooms. This was in reaction to the state mandate that schools had to offer some in-class instruction. Then Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. and Cameron County Health Director James Castillo ordered the postponement of face to face learning until September. The district then changed it’s schedule with the new first day of school set for Sept. 8 and held the first four weeks of school online. At the moment, students are taking classes both in person and online.
In other news, Superintendent Art Cavazos announced his retirement effective June 30; Alicia Noyola, chief academic officer, is the lone finalist for the superintendent position.
The San Benito school district also changed its schedule and held its first day of school on Sept. 8. The new date was proposed to the board by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nate Carman.
“ Last weekend, I think we had three days in a row where Cameron County reported over 1,000 individuals per day that tested positive. I understand some of that was probably a backlog in some testing,” Carman said during the meeting. “When you see those kinds of numbers, you just think that maybe we’re still not quite ready to get back into buildings.”
San Benito held the first eight weeks of classes remotely, with face-to-face instruction offered beginning Nov. 3 in accordance with state mandate. The district provided training and technical assistance to teaching staff and digital devices to students.