McALLEN — School district leadership here and across the Rio Grande Valley find themselves between a rock, a hard place and the mandates of the Texas Education Agency when it comes to preparing for the fall semester as COVID-19 activity continues to spike locally.
Trustees of the McAllen Independent School District reviewed their administration’s plan for the fall Monday evening, but not before hearing from community members from both sides of the aisle with strong opinions on pandemic response.
Largely the district intends to follow Texas Education Agency guidance on returning to traditional school, which stipulates reporting confirmed cases on campuses to the local health department and state health services, excluding sick students from school and detailed guidance in case of an exposure.
The district also plans on taking some steps that are not required by the state, including notifying the community about on-campus cases, conducting contact tracing and highly encouraging mask use at schools.
For students who have COVID-19 or are in quarantine, the district can deliver virtual instruction, which has been rebranded as “remote conferencing” by the state, Assistant Superintendent Arely Benavides said. She said the state stipulates that the student’s teacher cannot actually educate them virtually, they’ll be educated by a “student support liaison,” who will be guided by the student’s teacher.
That virtual instruction won’t be available for students who don’t have COVID-19.
Physically, many of the hallmarks of last semester will remain on campus. There will still be things like desk shields in classrooms and cafeterias, hand sanitizing stations, temperature checks for symptomatic students, COVID-19 hygiene training, increased disinfection practices and social distancing steps.
Changes include more ventilation and air purification, traditional meal service in the cafeteria with shields and water filling stations meant to limit the spread of the virus.
The most significant change will likely be uncovered faces, although about 88% of McAllen parents have opted for requiring masks for their children in a survey issued Friday, Benavides said.
Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez said permission forms from parents will notify the district if their child is required to wear a mask, which the district plans to discreetly enforce on campus.
“We know that the governor has made it very clear that we cannot mandate, but our position is that parents can mandate,” he said.
The possibility of bullying created by the divide between maskers and anti-maskers among the student body also drew concern from the board. Gonzalez said bullying will be addressed as it usually is, with the student code of conduct.
“This is just a new variable,” he said. “Masks have now been introduced, so if anybody feels like they’re being singled out or bullied, then that will definitely be addressed. Because we want children to come to school and learn, whether they’re wearing a mask or not.”
The district’s actions toward the pandemic drew criticism from members of the public at Monday’s meeting, both from people who said the district is taking too much action and a McAllen American Federation of Teachers representative who said it’s not doing enough.
A small crowd of people opposing the district’s support of masks and COVID-19 vaccinations attended the meeting, several speaking to the board during public comment. The rest of the group met their statements with applause and waved American flags.
Some of those speakers said masks are ineffective and even harmful; one claimed his son played football and his lungs almost collapsed. Others criticized the COVID-19 vaccine, saying it’s dangerous, one even alleging it’s the product of some sort of pharmaceutical/educational institution money-making racket.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes masks and vaccines as being both safe and effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Mario Gamas, a local pastor, called the district’s overall pandemic response fear mongering and said McAllen ISD has no right to give its students health guidance.
“Your job as a district, school district, is to ensure that our kids learn,” he said “And I want to emphasize, learn. Academics! My job is to protect my childrens (sic), their health and everything else. It’s not your job to protect my childrens and grandchildrens.”
Jason Mangum, another local pastor, gave a short sermon criticizing both masks and vaccinations, saying that pandemic precautions do more harm than good.
“As a pastor, I have to deal with the issues of the kids that want to commit suicide,” he said. “I have to deal with the issues of what’s going on in our community, where you can see people that are suffering. I’m sorry for the loss of life — I have a big heart. But at the same token, people are misinformed and they are lining up to get an experimental drug without being educated about it.”
The gist of the message was that the district is making a grave error by taking steps in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus and that they will face the wrath of the almighty for doing so.
“I have yet to have one board member email me, because they do not care for our children,” shouted Miguel Escobar, a physician’s assistant who called in to yell at the board. “So you need to wake up people, or God’s gonna judge you.”
The board is also facing pressure from people who feel that the district is not doing enough to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Clarissa Riojas, a member of the McAllen ISD AFT, called for the board to adopt a resolution penned by her group.
The resolution calls on Gov. Greg Abbott and TEA Commissioner Mike Morath to allow districts to make safety decisions for themselves, including deciding whether or not to mandate and enforce mask use.
“The delta variant of COVID-19 — more transmissible and contagious — continues to spread through Texas and put students and staff at risk, including the millions of school children under age 12 who currently cannot be vaccinated,” Riojas said.
The teacher cited other districts that have begun pressuring the state, including Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, whose board approved a similar resolution Monday.
“MISD cannot be afraid to take a stance, to show parents and employees that they are willing to fight for children,” Riojas said.