Sharyland ISD prepares for school year with pilgrimage to basilica

MISSION — A few weeks ago Sharyland ISD Board Trustee Ricky Longoria couldn’t get rid of a nagging feeling that he hadn’t done enough to get ready for the school year.

He and the rest of the board and administrators certainly had done quite a bit to get ready for the first day of school amid health precautions now necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’d studied TEA guidelines. They’d studied CDC guidelines. They’d thought out the district’s plan for distributing electronic devices for students to use for remote learning at home, and they’d invested in infrared temperature scanners for students to use when in-person instruction on campus returns.

And yet, Longoria felt like they’d left something off the list.

“You try to check off as you go along that you’re meeting all these guidelines, and at the end of the day you kind of sit back and ask yourself if you’ve done everything you possibly can,” he said.

What Longoria realized his district and his community was missing was hope. To remedy that, he turned to the heavens, organizing a pilgrimage of district and community leaders that walked the 9 miles from the Sharyland ISD administration building in Mission to the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle in San Juan.

The goal of the pilgrimage was simple: Longoria wanted to ask God to watch over the district’s students and employees at the beginning of an unprecedented school year.

“It’s no secret,” he said. “Our district and any district is about to face probably the most challenging times in terms of being able to provide a great education to kids, just because of the distance learning and the challenges of the community with COVID going around and families being affected.”

Longoria, who’s not a particularly religious man, said the pilgrimage started as a personal project, but when other board members heard about it they quickly signed on to join.

They met outside the administration building before sunup Sunday. Longoria hadn’t seen many of them in months.

“It was nice to see them again and be around them in a common goal,” he said. “It almost felt like it used to be, but it’s not.”

Over a dozen people joined him on the walk, pausing to pray in the twilight before setting off down Business 83 toward the basilica.

“We all gathered beforehand, acknowledged the reason for our walk, and very simply we just started walking,” Longoria said. “Business 83 I think used to be called the miracle mile, so it seemed appropriate.”

Some walked faster, others strolled slower. The sun came up and it got hot quick. Nevertheless, about 9 miles and 2 and a half hours later, the pilgrims paused to regroup before walking up to the mural of Mary on the side of the shrine and placing their hands on the building.

“We did it some of us thinking we couldn’t do it from a physical standpoint,” Longoria, 55, said. “But we did, and it was a moment of reflection and thinking about our kids and our goals and our needs and our families, and it was just a really, really great experience for all.”

Longoria says the community’s response to the gesture has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It was amazing. We did not do this looking for a pat on the back, we did not do this looking for any recognition,” he said. “The response has been totally amazing. I think it gave our community a sense of hope, that we’re all in this together, and if we stick together we’ll be OK.”

Less than 24 hours after Longoria checked off the last thing on his back to school to-do list, Sharyland’s students checked in for their first day of the school year via the internet. Longoria says it seems to be working out A-OK.