BY VALERIE GONZALEZ AND MATT WILSON | STAFF WRITERS
The state announced Thursday that Rio Grande Valley schools will have the option to extend their transition period into on-campus instruction by another month.
These changes, made to the Attendance and Enrollment COVID-19 guidance provided by the Texas Education Agency, allow school districts to extend their transition window by another four weeks once the plan is approved by their school board and preliminary TEA plan feedback is received.
School districts that fall within cities still struggling with a high count of COVID-19 cases will receive special consideration.
“Note: Governor Abbott’s Executive Order 30 describes certain areas of the state where certain business occupancy levels are raised to 75% and others that remain at 50%. The agency will take into consideration whether school systems are located in whole or in part in areas that remain at the 50% threshold when determining additional transition day waiver approval,” the guidance reads.
The news comes as the Valley’s COVID-19 numbers continue to dwindle. The Valley recorded 266 more cases Thursday, two in Willacy County, eight in Starr, 47 in Cameron and 209 in Hidalgo County.
Authorities also confirmed 31 more deaths linked to the virus Thursday, 23 in Hidalgo County and eight in Cameron.
“I remain very concerned with the growing number of deaths from this virus, but I am told that many of the deaths that we are recording these days come from a backlog of cases with the state,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez wrote in a statement. “That’s not to minimize the tragedy of these deaths, but to explain that our numbers are actually improving. Still, my prayers are with the families of those who have died.”
Despite the improvement, Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez says he will make amendments Friday that also effectively push back the recommended start date for in-person instruction.
Melendez confirmed the upcoming changes to his July 14 order Thursday evening.
The original order prevented non-faith-based schools, for grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, from re-opening for on-campus instruction until Sept. 27.
Friday’s orders will extend that date by “roughly about four weeks,” according to Melendez.
“The health authorities order was made at a time when there was broad spread infection of the disease. Since that time, the conditions have improved although the danger still exists,” Melendez said. “Therefore, the health authority orders will be modified to represent the current COVID-19 pandemic status in Hidalgo County with the focus on returning children back to school in the safest way possible.”
The new orders will be extending the date, but those are subject to change.
“We’ll see where we are four weeks from now,” Melendez cautioned.
Friday’s order will provide more details.
Donna ISD Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez said he was glad Valley districts were being given more flexibility regarding reopening guidelines, something he says local officials have been pushing for.
“In two or three weeks, the numbers may go down to a manageable number where we can reopen. We might not need the waiver after all, right? We don’t know that,” he said. “But at least knowing that we have that choice, if the situation continues as is or worsens, it’s refreshing and it puts people at ease.”
If there’s any discrepancies between the TEA’s guidelines and Hidalgo County’s, Azaiez says districts will ultimately be beholden to the state’s requirements.
“The county order is pretty much invalid, that’s pretty much it. It’s not because of us, the attorney general came up with that opinion,” he said.
Teachers are also keeping track of the evolving state and local conversation on reopening campuses, including Celeste Lopez, a four-year teacher at Weslaco ISD.
Lopez has a two-fold concern for the seventh grade students she refers to as “my children,” and the family for which she cares. She has a power of attorney for her sick grandmother and helps care for her parents, including her father who has had six arteries replaced for a heart condition in recent years.
“Exposing myself, I’m exposing a whole other side of my family,” she said.
Weslaco ISD on Thursday evening approved a transition plan that would ask teachers to voluntarily return to the classroom for students experiencing internet connectivity problems while the district seeks TEA approval of an additional four-weeks of virtual learning. Lopez said the virtual option has presented challenges, but she’s managed to maintain a daily class attendance rate of about 90%.
Fears of returning to the classroom amid the pandemic grew when Lopez and other teachers became aware of the on-campus COVID-19 statewide count.
The Texas Department of Health and Human services is tracking the cases of COVID-19 among students and staff who have participated in on-campus activities. As of Thursday evening, 3,445 students and 2,850 staff members have tested positive for the virus in Texas.
Other groups voiced their support of the new guidelines as well Thursday.
“We are appreciative that state officials are responding positively to the thousands of our school employee members lighting up the switchboards and inboxes of the governor and education commissioner asking for common-sense measures to keep out communities safe in pandemic hot spots,” Zeph Capo, president of teachers’ union Texas AFT, wrote in a statement.