Valley schools brace for COVID-19

Valley schools and universities began taking significant steps to prepare for the arrival of the coronavirus Thursday, including travel moratoriums, extended spring breaks and a shift to online classes in some institutions.

At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley it’s unclear when students will return to campus from spring break. The university announced Thursday afternoon that break would be extended until March 20 and classes would resume on March 23 in a strictly online capacity.

The decision was made in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a release from the university stated, and classes will be restricted online until further notice.

“As part of our ongoing commitment to our UTRGV community’s health and safety, the Office of Emergency Preparedness, along with our Infectious Disease Outbreak Committee, continues to monitor the current COVID–19 (coronavirus) outbreak,” President Guy Bailey wrote in the release.

Revised end-of-semester and finals dates will be shared soon, the release said.

According to the statement, UTRGV faculty and staff will continue working as normal and supervisors will work with employees to arrange appropriate social-distance measures. Guidance for student employees is forthcoming and will be shared soon.

“Our custodial staff continues to clean and sanitize all our campuses and off-campus facilities day and night, with deep-cleaning efforts taking place in those areas of high human traffic,” Bailey wrote in the release.

UTRGV has also canceled all university-related events until further notice, although exceptions may be made for small events, the release said. None of the university’s regularly scheduled athletic events will be played until further notice.

University-related travel to several countries and states has been suspended, the release said and all study abroad programs have been canceled.

UTRGV was one of several universities across the state to announce similar measures.

South Texas College had not announced any plans to delay classes as of Thursday evening.

“South Texas College continues to monitor the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) closely. At this time, there are no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 at South Texas College,” STC President Shirley Reed wrote in a statement posted on the college’s website Thursday. “South Texas College campuses remain open and we expect to deliver classes as usual when we return from Spring Break.”

In the statement, Reed said the college would address the situation as needed based on the advice of local, state and national health organizations. She also urged students to be cautious during spring break.

“If county health officials were to recommend the college alter its operations to preserve community health, we would follow that recommendation and notify all students and employees,” Reed wrote.

The coronavirus is also causing disruptions at the primary and secondary levels.

UIL announced Thursday afternoon that it has canceled state events in response to the pandemic.

The remainder of the UIL Boys State Basketball Tournament is suspended until further notice and the decision will take effect upon the conclusion of the 3A session Thursday, a release from UIL read.

“After much consultation with government and health officials, we have made the difficult decision to postpone the remainder of the UIL State Basketball Tournament,” UIL Executive Director Charles Breithaupt wrote in the release. “Our number one priority remains the well-being of our student-athletes and spectators and we are taking every possible precaution to keep them safe.”

The statement said fans who purchased tickets for postponed games can be issued refunds at points of sale or from the school where they purchased tickets.

Valley districts have issued their own travel bans and advisories as well, including McAllen ISD, which cancelled all school-sponsored travel outside of deep South Texas until further notice Wednesday.

“Out of an abundance of caution, McAllen ISD is canceling all school-sponsored travel for students and staff outside of Region One until further notice,” a release from the district said. “Thank you for your patience and your support.”

The decision is the latest made by the district in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Region One consists of Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr, Brooks, Willacy, Jim Hogg, Webb and Zapata counties.

McAllen Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez addressed the district’s response to the virus in a video released by the district Wednesday.

“As a district we’re being very proactive as we keep our facilities clean. We’re still using our Gold Shield, which is the antimicrobial agent that we’re spraying on our surfaces in our schools around a schedule,” he said. “We’re still sanitizing our buses in the mornings and afternoons, and we’re working hard to change habits with regard to all the things that people need to do in regard to covering their cough and making sure that they’re washing their hands appropriately, and doing all the things necessary with regard to staying home if they’re sick.”

Gonzalez said the district would work with parents and officials from other local institutions to address the situation.

“We have to work as a team,” he said.

Edinburg CISD also issued a statement announcing travel outside of Region One would be suspended.

“Today, I am announcing proactive measures that support the recommendations from health officials regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) and limiting the risk of exposure to our school community. The health and safety of all members of Edinburg CISD students, staff, families, and the community are our primary concern,” Interim Superintendent Gilbert Garza, Jr. wrote in the statement. “As previously shared, there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in Edinburg CISD or Hidalgo County, at this time. As local, national, and global health recommendations shift to reduce the spread of the virus, we are taking steps for the safety of our school community.”

The release said that campuses will be cleaned and disinfected over spring break and that classes are set to resume March 23.

School officials in Weslaco are taking precautions against coronavirus, announcing in a statement via Facebook Thursday that facilities will be disinfected over spring break, which begins next week. “(T)he District will disinfect all school facilities using products recommended by health officials,” the statement reads in part.

Transportation department staffers have also been regularly disinfecting school buses, according to the statement.

“Additional measures are taking place on a daily basis by the custodial staff to clean high touch areas such as door knobs, push bars and light switches,” the statement reads.

And in a statement released last week by the Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District, staff have been encouraged to frequently clean classroom tables and surfaces.

“While a new type of illness can be scary, we can protect our students, teachers, and the broader community by using simple everyday actions that protect people from other types of respiratory viruses,” the statement reads.

Hidalgo County has created a webpage — www.hidalgocounty.us/2630/Coronavirus-Updates — to keep residents up to date with any developments with the coronavirus in the area.

Staff writer Dina Arevalo contributed to this story.