COVID-19 case activity varies at RGV schools; additional data still sought

Select students in Hidalgo County began returning to campus last month, a decision during the pandemic some fear is a gamble based on an assumption by state authorities that school districts could manage some level of in-person instruction without turning the Rio Grande Valley into a COVID-19 hot spot like it was this summer.

It’s not clear yet whether any Hidalgo County schools quite figured out how to do that.

They’ve certainly taken precautions: schools have buckets of hand sanitizer in supply, students are met by nurses with thermometers at the door, regular desks topped with plexiglass shields and carefully spaced out from one another.

It remains to be seen whether those precautions are effective.

So far, 9,719 students and 6,454 staff members across the state have been infected with COVID-19 on public school campuses since the beginning of August, according to the Texas Education Agency. Hidalgo County students and teachers make up part of those numbers.

“We’ve had several outbreaks of school teachers, cafeteria workers, just as we had feared and warned,” county Health Authority Ivan Melendez said. “There’s going to be problems, and we’re seeing them already.”

Based on information from just a handful of school districts, at least 100 students and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-August at Hidalgo County districts.

McAllen ISD reported nine positive cases since mid-August, five students and four staff members. Edinburg reported seven, five staff and two students; Sharyland reported 10, three staff and seven students; while PSJA reported 89, 70 staff members and 19 students.

Mission, La Joya and Weslaco ISDs did not respond to a request for their number of positive cases, although a spokesperson for Mission CISD said that differences between where school districts stand with reopening might make comparing them unfair.

PSJA, for example, has the most positive cases out of those four districts, but it also has about 600 students back on campus.

McAllen only has 63 students back on campus, excluding athletes and participants in fine arts activities.

Proportionate to the amount of students back on campus, McAllen ISD actually has a greater percentage of cases than PSJA.

Edinburg CISD has so far avoided resuming any in-person classes at all, although it has resumed some athletics, and still reported a pair of cases among students.

In theory, standardized reports on positivity levels in Hidalgo County schools would be available from the state.

The Texas Education Agency rolled out a COVID-19 report for every district in Texas that detailed positive cases last month before quickly withdrawing it, citing “issues” with the data.

They began reporting that data again on a weekly basis at the beginning of October, but the data remains limited at best and useless at worse.

The only Hidalgo County district with positive cases listed in the report is PSJA, and the numbers reflected in the state’s report are either delayed or inconsistent from the numbers reported by the district itself.

The report also does not report data on districts with less than 50 students attending school on campus, a precaution meant to protect the privacy of students who test positive.

Functionally, that means the state won’t be reporting information on positive cases among athletes in districts with a very low on-campus enrollment.

The lack of readily available information has led to a social media frenzy in the Rio Grande Valley, with posts decrying districts with positive cases, closed campuses and allegations of coverups.

Districts are required by the state to notify students, staff and families of students if a COVID-19 case is identified among any students or staff who participate in on-campus activities.

Per TEA guidance, that notification is supposed to be consistent with notification requirements for other communicable diseases and consistent with legal confidentiality requirements, which usually translates into a letter sent from the campus where the case was identified.

Other districts, however, have gone a step forward, making COVID-19 positivity information readily available to the general public.

PSJA and Sharyland have both created online COVID-19 dashboards that detail positive cases, a step Edinburg CISD is planning to take this week, according to a district spokesperson.

Compared to the data released by the state, PSJA’s dashboard is quite informative. The data it contains goes back months, and it details infections by school, positivity rates and campus closures with maps, charts and graphs.

“You give people more information and sometimes it could be good, you give them less and then they wonder why they didn’t have that information before, so we are trying to strike that balance,” PSJA Superintendent Jorge Arredondo said Monday. “But at the end of the day we’re not hiding anything. Everyone right now should know that we don’t exist in a bubble.”

Sylvia Tanguma, McAllen AFT president, says she thinks communicating COVID-19 information is crucial in allowing educators to make an informed decision regarding returning to campus.

“If I’m sick and/or I have an underlying condition, it may not be worth my health and I may need to find something else,” she said. “I just think they need to be very transparent with it.”

Tanguma says she sympathizes with the districts: HIPAA laws can make reporting COVID-19 cases tricky, she said, and on many fronts, local administrations are beholden to the TEA.

“Honestly, TEA is forcing unsafe measures onto the school boards and onto administration. Unrealistic measures,” she said.