Valley officials anticipate changes to school reopening guidelines

Rio Grande Valley officials expect the state to make an announcement this week modifying procedures for school districts in areas that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

State Board of Education Member Ruben Cortez Jr. says he spoke with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath on Friday and requested the commissioner give more flexibility to educational entities to make decisions on a local level in light of Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that the Valley would be excluded from a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions last week.

Abbott described the Valley, along with hospital regions that include Laredo and Victoria, as still “in the danger zone.”

According to Cortez, Morath declined to go into detail but said that he planned to make an announcement modifying procedures for the Valley’s districts Thursday afternoon.

Cortez says he expects that announcement to include modifications that affect mandated on-campus reopening timelines.

“I have a lot of faith that it will. I have a lot of faith that they will give more flexibility. McAllen already started taking kids in this week, South Texas ISD already has kids in there. They’re transitioning them in, in phases,” he said. “ I think that whatever he brings out on Thursday will address that specific concern.”

Statewide, TEA allowed districts to delay on-campus instruction for at least four weeks and requested waivers from districts in COVID-19 hot spots that wished to continue teaching virtually for an additional four weeks — although districts are required to teach a small portion of their students in person for the second four weeks.

McAllen ISD, for example, began accepting some students based on need for on-campus instruction Monday.

The district’s reopening plan indicates that parents will be able to choose whether their students attend on campus, remotely or through a combination of the two by Oct. 19. Although, the district points out that that date is subject to change based instruction from other entities.

Superintendents from the Valley who disagreed with the state’s timeline were slated to be allowed to voice that opinion Tuesday afternoon, Cortez said, in a Zoom call between Morath and every superintendent in Region One.

“In my discussion this morning with the general council for the commissioner, he basically shared with me that the commissioner wants to hear it from the boots on the ground. So he wants to hear from them that what I’m asserting is in fact the case,” Cortez said.

Cortez has not been the only one to express doubt over Valley students and teachers returning to campus.

Texas AFT, a teachers’ union with more than 65,000 members, began a letter drive Tuesday demanding revised guidelines for the three hospital regions left out of Abbott’s loosened restrictions.

“Texas is a big state. And not all areas are feeling the same impacts from the pandemic. As Gov. Greg Abbott noted last week when allowing for higher capacity in many businesses, several areas in South Texas — including the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, and Victoria — continue to be hot spots for COVID-19 and need to keep tightened safety restrictions,” a post on the union’s website reads. “The Texas Education Agency also is expected to revise some of its guidelines soon.”

Among TAFT’s demands are allowing districts to remain virtual for the rest of the fall, giving school boards the autonomy to limit campuses to strictly necessary staff and allowing boards to make plans with local health authorities among its requests for the state.

Speaking in a public service announcement on Sept. 14, Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez said he did not believe in-person instruction was safe at that time, but indicated his opinion could change if COVID-19 data was more promising by the end of the month.

Melendez has referenced hospitalization rates as a reliable metric for gauging the state of the pandemic.

Since Sept. 14, hospitalization rates for COVID-19 patients in Hidalgo County have fallen from 246 to 186.

Cortez says he believes Region 1 superintendents would voice concerns about returning to campus at Tuesday’s meeting and that the state will take some action to address those concerns.

While he’d prefer that Valley schools stay virtual for the rest of the semester, Cortez says even a two- or three-week delay on in-person learning is another two or three weeks closer to the development of a vaccine or some other sort of mitigation measure.

“I understand that some people want to get their kids back in school, and under any other circumstance I might agree with them,” he said. “But given what the governor shared, given what we already know, given how we continue to be among the highest rate of COVID cases not only in the state but in the country, it’s critical that we continue to protect our citizens, protect our faculty, and more importantly, protect our students.”

If Morath’s announcement does not delay a return to campus Thursday, Cortez says he expects school districts to turn to litigation against the state, a step he says hasn’t been taken so far.

“If his announcement isn’t a favorable one on Thursday, I imagine by next week there will be at least one that pulls the trigger and says, ‘We’re going to sue.’” he said. “I see that coming on the horizon.”