Some of the posters on cars during a protest against reopening schools this fall in Edinburg. (Courtesy photo)

EDINBURG — Plans to send students back to classrooms in the fall brought concern, criticism and outright outrage from community members across the Rio Grande Valley, prompting officials to call for more latitude in using online instruction and even a protest here Friday morning.

Texas Education Agency guidelines require public schools to provide parents the choice of in-person or instruction for their children when class resumes in August.

During the protest, organized by Edinburg American Federation of Teachers, about 30 vehicles driven by instructors and parents from Edinburg CISD, circled the district’s administration building with horns honking and signs displayed that called for a slower opening and more virtual instruction.

Isabel Martinez was in one of those cars. Martinez has been wearing a face mask since before it came in style.

Because of medical issues, she was instructed by her doctor to wear a mask after being hospitalized for a medical condition last year and taking a two month leave from her job as a teacher at Canterbury Elementary.

Her doctor told her to wear a mask to protect herself when she came back to school in January, finally telling her she was healthy enough to go mask-less during spring break.

Just in time for a global pandemic to force her to cover her mouth again.

Martinez, who teaches choir, says that those precautions will have been in vain if she resumes teaching in-person this August.

“I’m exposed to everyone by noon, and I’m technically a superspreader,” she said. “TEA has mentioned that there should not really be any singing or wind instrument playing in person.”

According to Martinez, she and the other protesters came out Friday in large part to encourage the board, which was inside discussing the plan for the 2020-21 school year, to implement a 100% virtual learning platform, at least until the pandemic subsides locally.

“We need them to make the right decision for our community, and listen to the employees and the parents, and let them know that if TEA is an obstacle the union, the parents and all decision makers need to work together to find the absolute best solution,” she said.

The protesters also criticized the district for the pace of the reopening plan, imploring them to take account of the community’s opinion. Martinez said she not only wants teachers to have a say in what the fall looks like, but to also include the opinions of bus drivers, cafeteria staff and custodians.

“Everybody that runs the school,” she said. “They’re the first ones in and they’re the last to leave. They’re important and they need to be heard as well.”

Martinez and the rest of the community that’s concerned about the fall didn’t get to hear the board’s full discussion on the matter Friday.

What was reported as an electrical short in a light bulb that started smoking and popping prompted the administration building to be evacuated and the fire department to be called, cutting the meeting short Friday.

The board is set to meet again at Edinburg North High School at 9 a.m. District spokesman Romeo Cantu declined to comment on the demonstrators, but noted that the district would be resuming discussion on reopening plans related to those concerns during Saturday’s meeting.

Trustee Minga Vela said it was unfortunate that the meeting was cut short.

“It was going great. We were having a lot of questions, a lot of dialogue in one of the best sessions we’ve had,” she said. “The underlying thing is the safety of everyone and how we deal with what was given to us to deal with that we cannot change.”

Vela indicated that the board would try to balance the concerns from the protesters with requirements from the state, saying safety was the paramount concern.

“They’re upset right now, but the law is the law, that’s what we have to do. Follow whatever direction TEA is giving us and the state, and then as things move along, certainly I know for sure that all of the board is in agreement that this plan can be changed at any minute,” she said.

Friday’s protesters aren’t the only ones in the Valley clamoring to make their opinions on the upcoming school year known.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, for one, issued a statement Friday condemning President Donald Trump for encouraging in-person instruction.

“Donald Trump should be ashamed of himself. Threatening to cut federal funds if schools do not fully reopen is disgraceful. This is a ploy that will endanger students, teachers and parents in the hopes of improving the U.S. economy for his re-election campaign. Our children shouldn’t be used as pawns in his political game because he failed as a leader,” Gonzalez wrote.

The Mission school board took action on the matter Friday, approving a resolution to take action on comprehensive safety and support measures to protect the community from COVID-19.

Some of the posters on cars during a protest against reopening schools this fall in Edinburg. (Courtesy photo)

Those measures include authorizing the superintendent to petition authorities to protect the community from the disease, pledging to support Hidalgo County’s legal authority to act to protect the health and safety of the community, and requesting the county to impose whatever facility occupancy restrictions it deems necessary.

Superintendent Carol G. Perez says the dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases has prompted the district to desire as online a curriculum as possible.

“We are very concerned based on the situation here in Hidalgo County,” she said. “We prefer virtual learning. The preference of course would be 100% remote instruction.”

Despite that preference, Perez says it’s not likely to become an actuality. She says 40% of the district’s parents have said they would prefer in-person instruction, a number she expects to fall some as the pandemic worsens. No matter how frightened parents get, however, some students’ situations would require them to come to campus, especially children of essential workers and special needs students.

“We are ready to provide instruction for them, but that would give us a lot less numbers and we would be able to provide more physical distancing,” Perez said.

According to Perez, local flexibility and control will be paramount in teaching through the pandemic this fall. In some ways, she said, TEA’s guidelines have been lacking.

“We were told that for area’s in the state that are hotspots for COVID cases, we would be receiving more stringent regulations, and that was not provided,” she said. “So we are appealing to our county judge to provide some of that guidance. At the same time, we are asking our county judge to appeal to the governor and also pass an executive order that would only provide in-person instruction for parents who have to work and… some children with special needs.”

Doing that, Perez says, will ultimately be the healthiest thing for the district.

“We just want to be responsive to the needs of our children, our parents and our community,” she said. “It’s about keeping them safe in this dire time.”