Amid pandemic, select RGV students transitioning to on-campus instruction

PHARR — Jesus Gonzalez is one of the first kids from the Rio Grande Valley to go to school — to actually go to school at a school —  during a pandemic in a hundred years.

Gonzalez was in class Monday morning at Daniel Ramirez Elementary in Pharr along with eight other students, nine of the first wave of students to return to campus under Texas Education Agency guidelines that allow Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD and other Valley districts to continue implementing a mostly virtual curriculum while requiring that students most affected by connectivity issues have the option to return to the classroom.

Those nine kids were the only students at Ramirez Elementary, a school that would usually be bustling with about 560 children.

They represent a small fraction of almost 600 students at the district that have returned to campus, itself a fraction of more than 30,000 students enrolled at PSJA.

Gonzalez and his colleagues sat at little desks spread around the library at Ramirez. They wore masks, like everyone else that comes onto the campus, and sat with iPads and workbooks placed behind plastic shields mounted to their desks.

The kids in the library were still learning virtually. They wore headphones, watching their teachers on their computer screens or scribbling on worksheets.

A proctor paced around the room occasionally, or sat behind her own plastic shield at a workstation in the center of a library.

There were just three teachers instructing virtually on campus at Ramirez: two who chose to work there because they felt they could teach better and Joshua Lopez, a PE teacher who chose to come back to double as an IT support tech.

Lopez works just down the hall from the library, in a computer lab that doubles as his PE classroom.

“I’m the guy right now that they’re calling right now if they have issues, if they have problems. And then I have to do a PE class as well. Sometimes I try to escape and go to the gym,” Lopez laughed.

At lunchtime, someone rolled in a tray of hamburgers on styrofoam trays into the library and the kids ate lunch before they headed home for the day.

A year ago that scene would have looked incredibly alien. The kids behind their plastic shields, Lopez drilling students through a video camera in a computer lab, the nurse who greets you at the door with a thermometer.

Now it feels surprisingly normal.

It’s not an ideal solution, perhaps, but it is a solution — and for Gonzalez, it’s a better one than learning from home.

“It feels way better, because at home there’s more distractions,” he said. “You see the bed, you want to go to sleep. You see the TV, you want to turn it on and see the cartoons. At school, there’s practically no distractions around, so you just want to do your work.”

Gonzalez, a precocious kid who’s fond of karaoke and understands how facemasks work better than most adults, was excited to be back at school.

Ramirez Elementary Principal Leonel Avila remembers him saying so when he came back last week.

“It’s crucial,” he said. “It equalizes learning for those kids and creates a level playing field. The kids come in, they have the support here, they have a computer lab … they need that structure and the Wi-Fi is very strong here, so it’s critical so that gap doesn’t widen, it continues to close.”

Avila was happy to see those kids back at school. He remembers, almost wistfully, asking kids not to run in the hallways.

“You need to have respect, please walk,” he’d tell them.

“Oh my God, to say that again and hear the echoes of their feet or the laughing and the chit-chatting, it’s just — we miss it,” Avila said Monday. “The kids are the heart of the school, and without them it’s just an empty shell.”

Gonzalez and those other eight kids brought some life back to Ramirez Elementary, and the district is getting ready for more of them.

There were other odd things at Ramirez Elementary on Monday that don’t look so odd anymore, all signs of preparation for having children head back to classrooms during a pandemic. Handymen carried in 5-foot tall plastic shields mounted in frames, and a room toward the front of the school had been designated as a “Care Room” to temporarily hold any student who displayed COVID-19 symptoms. There were cafeteria workers in the kitchen, bundling up school hundreds of school lunches to go.

Just last week they delivered or distributed close to 180,000 meals.

Hand sanitizer was on display anywhere a person might pass by, and there were 75 more of those plastic-laden desks spaced out in the gym, a sight that’s bound to become a school staple in Valley schools for the immediate future.

PSJA will likely fill those seats slowly. The district is hoping to limit in-person instruction to students who most need it with another TEA waiver through Thanksgiving at least, after which on-campus instruction will be strictly optional.

“We feel that this needs to be a slow progression,” Superintendent Jorge Arredondo said.

So far, Arredondo said, online learning has been working out alright. The district has logged a 97.1% attendance rating and he says teachers are using virtual classrooms to collaborate and give a voice to students who didn’t have much input during in-person classes.

The district’s strategy for containing the spread of the virus with students on campus is a combination of prevention and proactive mitigation.

Positive cases on campus or related to campus are almost inevitable. PSJA has had students test positive, and closed four schools because of positive cases last week alone. Positive cases have been reported in McAllen and Sharyland as well, and it’s not likely that any district will be able to entirely avoid them.

“Obviously we’re not in a bubble,” Arredondo said. “We’re still going out shopping at H-E-B, we’re still going out getting our necessities, so there’s that opportunity for exposure. Maybe two or three months ago we also learned of a family that got it when they moved into another home, so you can get it at home too if you’re not aware of who’s living in that home.”

There’s a hotline for campus visitors who do test positive, and a COVID-19 dashboard to report positive cases that the district plans to have operational this week.

Arredondo says contact tracing has been essential, and he thinks it will be a key strategy in the district’s effort to implement on-campus instruction.

“All those are risks that we know are out there, and we’re doing everything we can to minimize those risks,” he said. “But for the most part we know we have to move forward and provide a quality education to our students, and we’re doing it in the safest way that we know how to do it.”

In doing so, PSJA and other Valley school districts are walking a tightrope between public health and education. It’s a balancing act no Valley school has had to do in a century.

“We have a preview of what it could be like,” Lopez, the PE coach/IT employee said. “We’re just dipping our toes.”