Hidalgo Co. health authority says not so fast on returning to school this month

Although some Hidalgo County school districts have indicated tentative dates for the return of in-person instruction, whether students are allowed to come back to campus at the end of the month is still anything but a certainty, at least according to Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez.

Dr. Ivan Melendez

On July 14, Melendez issued an order preventing both private and public schools — from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade — from returning to campus until after Sept. 27. This required instruction to be provided exclusively through virtual, remote or distance-learning.

“The general recommendations on today’s date have not changed very significantly,” Melendez said in a public service announcement released by Hidalgo County on Monday. “We’re optimistic, because we see things trending in the right way, we see more people paying more attention, but there’s still room for improvement. I think all of us as we drive through our daily back to work and stuff can see that there’s still a lack of compliance and social distancing.”

Melendez’s order from July also prevents schools from hosting any school-sponsored events and activities, such as clubs, sports, fairs, exhibitions and academic or athletic competitions until on-campus instruction resumes, and requires districts to develop and submit a plan to parents and the public for their re-opening at least two weeks before resuming on-campus instruction.

The McAllen school district issued a plan Friday that appears to meet that criteria, indicating that a small number of students selected based on need will be invited to participate in a controlled face-to-face educational setting starting Sept. 21, while a broader swath of parents would tentatively be able to choose whether their children attend on campus, remotely or through a combination of the two by Oct. 19.

Melendez illustrated just how tentative those dates might be in Monday’s PSA.

“So, today is September, today we are not ready,” he said in the announcement. “In 10 days the situation may change; in 10 days we’ll have an additional week and a half. We’ve already had three weeks of downward trending of our numbers, plateauing of our numbers…”

Melendez said the decision on whether to come back to campus would be made through collaboration between himself and local district leaders, and would depend on the state of the pandemic in the area.

The health authority said that he felt the return to campus should be slow and deliberate, noting that even when on-campus classes return they will not be mandatory for students.

“Parents who feel that they do not want to send their kids back to school because of safety issues, no one’s going to come to their house and take their kids and take them to school. So they have that option to opt out with distance learning,” he said.

Melendez could not say whether or not teachers would have to return, noting that that decision would rest with their employer. He did note that he’d seen creative solutions to avoid putting teachers in the same room as students elsewhere.

“Have I seen options? I have,” he said. “I’ve seen options where some schools are going to have their teachers off campus — that is they will be separate through video, the children will be in the classroom, there will be a proctor in the classroom, but the actual school teacher will be in a different room on a computer system. So there are ways to address those fears.”

Melendez didn’t give a specific date parents could expect further guidance by, but he did emphasize the gravity of the situation.

“This is not the time to let your guard down. We did it May 1st and we saw the astronomical results that occurred,” he said.