McALLEN — The high school sports calendar in the Rio Grande Valley was upended late Tuesday afternoon when both Cameron and Hidalgo County each passed separate public health ordinances that will limit local schools to virtual or remote instruction only through to start the school year.

Both orders come on the heels of similar announcements from local officials in Corpus Christi, El Paso and Laredo and, like those previous orders, also stipulate that any on-campus, school-sponsored sports practices and other extracurricular activities must stop until school districts resume in class instruction.

“I anticipated something like that happening. I felt something was coming down the line that was going to be either through our county, the governor or (University Interscholastic League), and that it would be giving us some direction,” Mercedes head football coach and athletic coordinator Roger Adame said.

“I think because of the high cases of COVID, we knew there could be some change in the back-to-school routine, especially with regards to the UIL and athletics,” McAllen ISD Athletic Director Paula Gonzalez said. “Here in the Valley we’re hoping to start with strength and conditioning although we put a halt to it and the numbers have kept going up. We weren’t surprised that distance learning was announced, but I think the length was something that was a little different I think.”

McAllen Memorial linebacker Michael Morales (13) attempts to stop against Brownsville Hanna running back Brandon Robles (21) in a season opener at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Friday, Aug 30, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The Cameron County public health order, which applies to schools as far East as Port Isabel, as west as La Feria and as far north as Rio Hondo and Santa Rosa, will prevent the resumption of on-campus practices and activities before Sept. 8.

Meanwhile, Hidalgo County’s public health mandate, which applies as far east as Donna, Mercedes and Weslaco and stretches as far west as Mission and La Joya, won’t allow schools to restart these activities until after Sept. 27 at the earliest.

Both county plans ask school districts to develop their own plans for resuming in-person, on-campus instruction two weeks before their respective dates.

Many local coaches and school administrators, however, are wondering how two neighboring counties arrived at similar conclusions on the same afternoon, yet selected two very dissimilar return dates relative to one another.

“Normally they’re pretty much in the same boat, the counties. They talk together and they kind of set the date so they can be on the same timetable, but it kind of caught us off guard,” PSJA High head football coach and athletic coordinator Lupe Rodriguez said. “I know with even the Laredo districts before all this happened, a lot of Valley schools were surprised that preseason games were no longer going to be able to happen because of that.”

PSJA JR Vasquez (7) is defended by San Benito defender Mauricio Padilla (28) in the first half of a high school football game at PSJA Stadium on Thursday, Sept.12,2019 in Pharr. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor dlopez@themonitor.com

“I think once you hear one, you kind of think, ‘Well, we’re pretty close Hidalgo County to Cameron County,’” Gonzalez said. “I think people kind of felt it would also be a Sept. 8 date (in Hidalgo County). I do think it is a little surprising, but I don’t know the legality of it and it’s always something that could be revisited.”

A majority of Rio Grande Valley coaches and school administrators, who have remained in constant contact with state and local health officials throughout this process, expect an imminent announcement from the University Interscholastic League and Texas Educational Agency in the near future to address several proposals that are currently on the table.

“We just wait until they direct us and tell us what we’re going to do,” said Edinburg CISD athletic director Roy Cantu, whose school board moved to start the year with a virtual-only option for students before the Cameron or Hidalgo county announcements.

Edinburg North Jason Duarte (6) and Moises Maldonado (2) intercepts a pass intended for Economedes Fermin Hernandez (20) during the first half of a high school football game at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Thursday, Oct.31, 2019 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor dlopez@themonitor.com

“We’re at the mercy of our board, our superintendent and other government and city entities to guide. It’s unknown territory. We’re all dealing with something that we’ve never dealt with before.”

For communities like Mercedes that nearly straddle the Cameron-Hidalgo County line, the public health orders present a unique set of problems.

“Looking at those two dates, I’m guessing it’s the amount of cases and the hospital capacities we have and they have, and I guess they had to make an adjustment on that,” Adame said. “I was hoping it would be something similar because of the teams we play in that area and obviously we want to get as much of the season played as we can, but this is what our county felt was the right move and we’ll support it.”

Rio Grande City is among many area schools facing a tremendous degree of uncertainty moving forward due in large part to its new districts.

Rio Grande City quarterback Mario Garza (10) attempts to handoff to running back Angel Galvan (23) in a District 16-5A game against PSJA Southwest at PSJA Stadium on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The Rattlers’ new district alignment for football groups the school with opponents in Laredo that have stopped all sports-related activities while their other district rivals in Eagle Pass and San Antonio Southwest ISD prepare to resume summer strength and conditioning workouts.

Starr County has yet to issue its own anticipated public health order as local authorities there continue to monitor the local health situation, which has led Rio Grande City athletic coordinator and head football coach Leo Mireles to ponder whether his football team will get a full or partial season, or no season at all.

“With a lot of cities and counties shutting stuff down, it has kind of minimized the chances of (the schedule) being very different for everyone. I talked to our football players and told them that there are things that we can control and things that are out of our control, and we’ve just got to do our best right now to stay healthy and be ready to go,” Mireles said.

“For Rio Grande City, we’re short on manpower at the hospital as it is and if somebody really needs to be incubated at the ICU, our hospital is so small that we have to send them out. We were flying them out to North Texas, but now, nobody is taking them in and nobody is taking patients, so it’s very difficult to say that we’re going to use a cookie-cutter approach from some other city when the resources we have are a lot less and we’re limited in a lot of ways. We really have to do what’s best for Rio Grande City and go from there.”

amcculloch@themonitor.com