Rat infestation largely mitigated, Hidalgo County Head Start says

Crystal Loredo attends a meeting at the Hidalgo Head Start Program administration office on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

EDINBURG — A severe rat infestation at a child care center here concerned Hidalgo County Head Start leaders so much that they held a special meeting to specifically address the problem and come up with a program-wide plan to handle rodents.

According to administrators, the monthslong infestation was largely mitigated by August, although the results of a Hidalgo County Health Department visit that was slated for this month are not clear.

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Head Start’s leadership came under increased scrutiny after the elected and appointed individuals who head the group decided to terminate longtime executive director Teresa Flores last week.

It’s unclear whether criticism over that infestation played any role in the council’s decision to terminate Flores. The infestation was one of the most frequently discussed topics by the program’s policy council this summer and representatives on that council expressed significant concern over it, although infighting over bylaws and who should be allowed to serve on the board more directly preceded Flores’ termination.

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Ric Gonzalez, the program’s attorney, contends individual representatives cannot talk to the press, so clarification on their motives is unlikely — unless it comes up in an open meeting.

Gonzalez, the program’s attorney and spokesperson, did not have information about the scheduled Health Department visit, but said he understood the rodent infestation had been mitigated. He described it as more of a problem with mice.

The rest of the group’s leadership very clearly termed it a rat infestation at its “Edinburg V” child care center on F.M. 2812. That infestation prompted criticism from officials on the policy council — with one parent representative implying her son may be getting ill because of the rodents.

Edinburg V was not the only pest-infested location. Then-executive director Teresa Flores told representatives that a three-classroom modular location in Mission was being permanently closed because a flea infestation there could not be successfully treated. Another location had rodents, she said, although the council did not discuss that infestation extensively and administrators treated it as being far less severe in nature than Edinburg V.

Flores told the council that Edinburg V’s center manager first asked for help with the infestation on March 7, when the manager reported a “big rat hole” in a classroom. Reports of foul odors, rodent-damaged infrastructure and requests for remediation followed.

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Recommendations for fixing the problem included switching to metal food containers program-wide. The rats were gnawing through the plastic ones at Edinburg V.

Two exterminator visits in April and another three in May were unsuccessful in completely remediating the infestation, according to administration.

At a meeting in June, Flores — appearing virtually and visibly ill with COVID-19 — told representatives that a variety of factors hampered the organization’s ability to address the infestation, which she described as an isolated case. She said Head Start went through several vendors trying to eradicate rats, and that those vendors were hamstrung by not being able to use effective chemicals around children.

The building also sits next to a large, vacant field, which leadership viewed as a contributing problem.

“What I think happened here is it was addressed but not to the point that it eradicated them,” Flores said. “And there were more factors involved than just a few rats inside the building. That there were problems with the building having to be, if I may say, ‘rat-proofed.’”

Members of the council were visibly concerned. “We need to be proactive, Ms. Flores,” Community Representative Adelita Muñoz said. “We cannot be reactive.”

Crystal Loredo, an elected parent representative on the council, implied the rodent infestation may be making her own child ill.

“My son was in there; he was very sick,” she said. “Everytime I had him in the class — you know, when I would take him to school … he ended up sick a lot. I don’t know if anybody knows how harmful rat urine and droppings are. They are very deadly, to anybody.”

Loredo said The Monitor could send questions about that comment to her through the program’s attorney. The Monitor didn’t receive a reply to those questions by press time, and it’s unclear if she found out whether the rodents were actually making her son ill.

Crystal Loredo attends a meeting at the Hidalgo Head Start Program administration office on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The council directed Flores to deliver a plan to remedy the infestation at Edinburg V and a protocol for vermin program-wide, which she did at a special meeting in July.

Flores detailed program-wide pest policies and spoke in detail about rat killing strategies for Edinburg V. She also defended the program’s actions regarding that infestation.

“It is important for us to recognize that something was being done,” she said. “Maybe it wasn’t as effective as what it needed to have been.”

Representatives seemed fairly receptive to the plan. Abraham Padron, a community representative, commended Flores on developing it.

“It’s certainly a thorough plan. We’ve invested the money — $3,400 is not chump change,” he said.

By mid-August, administration told the council that the problem had been largely mitigated, although they expected mitigation efforts to be ongoing

“I feel, personally, that we have been able to control the rodent problem that we’ve had there at that particular facility,” Ambrosio Tovar, an administrator with the program, told the council. “But we will continue, obviously, to monitor.”