BY A. COLLEEN DeGUZMAN AND MATT WILSON

For the first time since March, every student in the Rio Grande Valley has the option to attend class in-person, and thousands began to do so Monday — a wave eliciting a variety of responses from local school districts due to concern over rising COVID-19 infections.

Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com
Kindergarten student Samuel Ruiz, 5, listens to the teacher in a mostly empty classroom as students adhere to COVID-19 precautions at JP LeNoir Elementary in Donna on Monday.

School for Donna ISD students, along with the La Joya and Roma school districts, resumed Monday, and students there were greeted by health screenings, temperature checks and gallons of hand sanitizer.

Donna schools saw 761 students return in-person Monday, about 12% of the district’s enrollment and less than half the number who were attending on-campus at the end of fall — despite that option now being extended to all.

Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez is confident in the measures the district has taken to mitigate the spread of the virus at its facilities, efforts like increased sanitization and free, optional COVID-19 testing for all staff. He says collaboration with the community has been key.

“What we are fortunate to have here is that our parents are trying to be on the safe side by keeping their students at home,” he said.

Nonetheless, Azaiez was among dozens of superintendents who petitioned the Texas Education Agency in December for permission to continue educating mostly virtually for the beginning of the spring semester.

That request was ultimately denied, although Azaiez said parents still have the flexibility to send their children to school virtually — he’s even encouraging parents to send their students to class remotely for the first couple of weeks of the semester.

Academically, Azaiez noted that there’s upsides to in-person instruction.

“At home, students may not feel comfortable enough to engage with learning or be 100% there, it’s not the same thing when they are there with the teacher in the classroom,” he said.

Teachers at the district have been working on campus since November when a portion of students returned. Azaiez said the district has largely avoided virus spread on-campus since then.

Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com
Masked artwork adorns the hallway at JP LeNoir Elementary in Donna on Monday.

“I want to emphasize how proud I am of our staff, our teacher, our students and parents who are coming together and working together to make sure everybody is safe,” he said.

Concerns over community spread on campus caused Edinburg CISD to take a more drastic measure over the weekend.

During an emergency meeting Saturday, the board voted to delay the resumption of classes until at least Jan. 13 over concern about the area’s rising COVID-19 cases.

The district is offering free coronavirus testing for employees this week and the board plans to discuss in-school instruction and pandemic measures on Jan. 12.

Much of Saturday’s meeting focused on teachers’ return to campus, with most of the board expressing support for a measure allowing staff that could work remotely to do so for another three weeks.

“If we can do our work from home, I suggest we do our work from home,” Edinburg school board President Mike Farias said. “Why endanger our whole staff of over 5,000 employees? And we need to do whatever we can to keep these people as safe as possible.”

Allowing teachers to work from home, along with suggestions to stagger staff schedules, was met with concern from Edinburg CISD Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Rebecca Morrison.

She described staffing shortages at the district that have prompted the hiring of over 100 substitutes. The demand is so great, she says, that principals will call administration desperate for substitutes and that the district is continuing to hire them.

“I hear a lot of talk about rotation, and that’s great, but who’s going to take care of the kids that show up? Because we know the number of kids that are there already, and right now because our teachers were not on staff, the instructional aides are desperately needed,” Morrison said. “The non-teaching professionals are desperately needed, because they’re covering classes. They’re covering students. There’s not enough substitutes.”

Staffing shortages have affected more than just teachers, Morrison added, noting custodians at campuses are having trouble keeping up with cleaning restrooms, hall monitoring and sanitizing facilities appropriately.

According to Morrison, maintenance staff and bus drivers are helping clean, and that bus drivers are also delivering supplies to students who’ve fallen through the cracks of remote learning.

“We’ve had a huge drop-off — I’m going to say a large drop-off of students — that, especially at the secondary, they’re just not attending school,” she said. “Can’t find them. They’re not getting on, asynchronously or synchronously.”

Those problems may be exacerbated by more students returning to campus for the spring semester.

At the meeting, Edinburg schools Superintendent Gilbert Garza Jr. said it’s not clear how many students will opt for in-person instruction when class starts.

“I don’t know if that’s going to go from 5 or 6% to 20% of the students coming in. Or the ones that have 15, maybe they go to 30,” he said. “We don’t know; it’s an unknown.”

A little more than half a day after the Edinburg board voted to delay classes, Edcouch-Elsa ISD’s board also held an emergency meeting discussing possibly amending the district’s calendar.

After 26 minutes in closed session, the board voted to adjust the staff workday on Monday to facilitate voluntarily testing all of its employees. Edcouch-Elsa trustees also gave Superintendent Greg Rodriguez the authority to alter the calendar based on the results of those tests.

As of press time, Edcouch-Elsa students were still scheduled to resume school on Tuesday. At that point three of the tests came back positive and those individuals are quarantining per CDC guidelines.

According to Rodriguez, the state would grant the district up to 14 days of virtual education without penalizing its funding if the amount of positive cases affects the district’s ability to deliver onsite instruction.

Rodriguez said he wasn’t sure precisely what the positivity rate would have to be to trigger that move, and that that decision would be made on a campus-by-campus basis based on whether enough teachers were healthy to support the students at each school.

“We’ve always had that flexibility built in should there be a significant impact on being able to deliver on-campus instruction,” he said.

Rodriguez called changing the calendar a last resort.

“We do not want to take away teachers’ well deserved breaks,” he said. “We don’t want to touch their spring break because we know that they deserve a break from the hectic world that we’re living in, and we also know that spring breaks in our region coincide.”

Like Edinburg’s administration, Rodriguez said he is concerned about the impact holiday gatherings could have on Edcouch-Elsa’s positivity rate.

Unlike Edinburg’s administration, he said he doesn’t fear an influx of students returning in-person when classes resume.

He said about 10% of the district’s students have been attending on-campus, a number he doesn’t see rising above 15% when the semester begins.

Rodriguez voiced his confidence in the efficacy of the tests the district is administering, as well as the steps that have been taken on campus to mitigate COVID-19 spread.

“We feel that schools are probably the safest place right now for people to be based on the mitigation protocols that we have in place,” he said.

Return dates 

  • Donna ISD: Jan 4
  • Edcouch-Elsa ISD: Jan 5
  • Edinburg CISD: TBD
  • Hidalgo ISD: Jan 5
  • IDEA Academy: Jan. 5
  • La Joya ISD: Jan 4
  • La Villa ISD: Jan 6
  • McAllen ISD: Jan 6
  • Mercedes ISD: Jan 5
  • Mission CISD: Jan 5
  • Monte Alto ISD: Jan 5
  • Progreso ISD: Jan 6
  • PSJA ISD: Jan 5
  • Rio Grande City CISD: Jan 6
  • Roma ISD: Jan 4
  • San Isidro ISD: Jan 5
  • Sharyland ISD: Jan 6
  • South Texas ISD: Jan 5
  • Valley View ISD: Jan 5
  • Weslaco ISD: Jan 5
  • UTRGV: Jan. 11
  • South Texas College: Jan 19