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The Curse of La Corona

Local leaders and school districts keep socially-distant over COVID-19 pandemic

Last week, several local school district and city leaders met to discuss their plans of response to COVID-19.

This week, Mission CISD, along with La Joya ISD and Sharyland ISD, closed school campuses.

Following a swift upheaval in public routine, school districts and cities have had to make changes to operations and scheduled events. Several major gathering opportunities have either been postponed or cancelled in response to the Coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

Throughout the week, officials have had to move rapidly in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Mission CISD

The MCISD Board of Trustees meet, approving a COVID-19 response resolution for district operations that closed schools this week. Progress Times photo by Jamie Treviño.

On Tuesday March 17, the Mission Consolidated Independent School District Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting to discuss plans moving forward.

There, each board member expressed pride in the entire administration and faculty at MCISD, noting they have been working tirelessly during what would have been their break to ensure the safety, wellbeing and continued education of students in this time.

“We just keep praying for all these families that may be affected by this coronavirus,” Board Member Veronica “Betty” Mendoza said. “But, it’s all going to turn out okay, we’re going to be good.”

Superintendent Carol Perez said the district had been conferencing daily with the Texas Education Association, which was following guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Once they moved into a stage where spread of the virus was imminent, the district acted immediately, sending releases and information to parents and students late in the evening and early morning.

A case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Laredo Monday evening, launching all the districts within Region One into emergency mode. Superintendents began exercising their rights to close schools for up to seven days, and per recommendations from the CDC, most will be closed until further notice.

“[The CDC] provided plans step-by-step,” Perez said. “[The commissioner from TEA] kept telling us ‘do not close your schools prematurely, because those that do who do not have widespread or confirmed cases will have to reopen.’ We took that very seriously.”

Perez presented the decision tree provided by the CDC, and pointed out the proper protocol followed by districts across the state and country.

“Once it started to hit Texas, we started on this plan,” Perez said. “We’re not going to wait. This plan is research-based, developed after what happened in other countries.”

“In order to stop the spread of the virus, we have to assess,” Perez added. “We’ve been in contact on a daily basis with our Hidalgo County Health Department – the experts have put a plan in place, and that is what we have committed at Mission CISD, to use research-based practices.”

During their emergency meeting, the MCISD met in executive session to get answers on legal matters. Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Student Services Lorena Garcia laid out the resolution and what it means for MCISD.

Garcia said the superintendent has the authority for an emergency closure. Staff at MCISD will continue to be paid for their current work, and volunteers working for child nutrition and maintenance and operations will be paid time and a half. Perez also bumped up the scheduled pay period for both salary and hourly employees one week, to ensure staff and their families are taken care of in terms of health and wellbeing.

Board President Charlie Garcia III read the entire resolution, which states the board authorizes the superintendent (without further action from the board) to petition state and local authorities for a waiver of laws and regulations to respond to the emergency, seek any necessary waivers from TEA regarding missed instructional days and low attendance, act in the place of the board and make all decisions regarding pay of employees and create guidelines and make determinations regarding absences and leave time for employees (especially any staff that may be diagnosed with COVID-19). At-will employees will be paid at their daily wage and receive usual benefits, and Perez can alter the school calendar as necessary, solicit and procure goods and services to the fullest extent, make all decisions regarding budgeted purposes and take all appropriate action moving forward.

“The Mission Consolidated Independent School District seeks to maintain a core of dedicated and caring employees,” Garcia said. “The district wishes to provide the greatest amount of stability for students and staff while continuing to ensure their safety.”

Sharyland ISD

The Sharyland Independent School District Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting Tuesday morning. 

There, they discussed the continued payment of employees, the strategies used to protect the health and safety of students as well as keep up with curriculum. The board, following some discussion amending some of the points laid out, passed a resolution to “efficiently and effectively” respond to the spread of the virus.

Employees paid for coming in voluntarily during the closing will be paid time and a half for their work. Directors have been told to practice safe, healthy distance practices when it comes to working in the district during this time.

Mid-day, Superintendent Maria Vidaurri announced that students and most of the staff in the district would not be returning to classes after Spring Break per a release from the district.

“In the best interests of the Sharyland ISD community and to support our nation’s need to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will close schools from beginning on March 23, 2020 and remain closed until such time as determined by the Superintendent,” according to the district press release. “Sharyland ISD is committed to making the health and safety of students, staff, and the community our number one priority.”

SISD and their campus athletic, academic, club and organizational activities are shut down. According to the release, limited staff will report to work to ensure day-to-day operations continue, “such as maintenance and operations, child nutrition, transportation, and finance.” The majority staff will work remotely, and “all employees will continue to be paid for their regular work schedule, and payment will not be interrupted.”

Sharyland ISD developed a distance learning plan to “facilitate instructional opportunities for students.” Meals will also be provided for the period, and the district website will house all updates and details as they become available.

For parents seeking information about internet access, the SISD website has options available. By clicking on the “Parents” tab on the district site, then “Student Internet Options,” parents can find how Spectrum, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon have adjusted their billing/pricing in light of COVID-19, as well as how they can use their services to access SISD online learning.

La Joya ISD

The La Joya Independent School District Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting on Wednesday, March 18. They announced via social media they would be closing campuses until April 3, returning April 6.

Superintendent Gisela Saenz, along with the assistant superintendents for student services, curriculum and instruction and operations, presented a plan to the Board of Trustees. Employees will be paid time and a half for their services at this time, and each group is kept within CDC recommendations of 10 or less.

“We’re going to be having 11 sites that are distributing food, and we’re going to need anywhere from eight to ten child nutrition programs staff at each of those sites,” Saenz said. “We’re going to need a custodian at each site, and we’re going to need a police officer at each of those sites.”

Several sites with specific pick up/drop off times were set up in a drive-thru fashion to distribute curriculum/lessons as well as meals. Saenz listed the number of personnel at each designated site, which will be listed on the district website as well as social media.

“We’re also looking at, beginning on Monday, 20 bus drivers that are going to be manning 20 bus hotspots that are going to be located throughout the community so that students in the more remote areas can have access to Wi-Fi for the work that they’re going to be required,” Saenz said, noting there will also be a couple of maintenance workers and roving custodians. “Our custodians are working this week to disinfect, and when we do make the decision to bring kids back, we will do another disinfection process throughout the district.”

Any child from 0 to 13 years of age will receive a meal if they show up to designated sites within the meal time frames. They will use a drive-thru to get meals out, and will accommodate special diets. No identification or social security numbers will be necessary.

District employees, as well as those dependent on their insurance plans, will have testing for COVID-19 covered without copay.

The LJISD district clinic, located at 4209 La Homa Rd., will be operational during their regular hours, which can be found online. Saenz and Magda Villarreal, the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, noted that there are measures in place to get both high-tech and low-tech instructional material out to students to ensure their continued quality of education.

“As a district, at least during this time and until we are told otherwise, in order to continue the flow of funds, we have to provide evidence that our students are being provided with instruction at home,” Saenz said. “We can do it on a high-tech basis, which is online, or on a low-tech basis, which is packets – and we have a combination.”

Starting next week students will be able to pick up assignments and packets at their designated sites, along with any necessary technology needed to complete their work. If students are unable to pick up assignments and/or technology from their campus via a vehicle, the district will ensure the lessons are delivered through liaisons and social workers.

The board of trustees thanked the entire LJISD administration, faculty and staff for keeping everyone informed and aware of the latest on district plans and protocol in these uncharted waters.

“We’re a great team, and it shows,” Board Member Nereyda Cantu said. “I really thank [everyone] for all the work put into this plan.”

Overall District Response

MCISD, LJISD and SISD will still be providing food to students, and will facilitate the distribution of grab-and-go meals for children enrolled in each district. Lessons will move to either printed packets or online, depending on the technological capabilities of accessing the instructional content.

STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) Testing across the state was suspended for the 2019-2020 school year. Monday morning Governor Greg Abbott announced the requirements would be waived for all students, and said he was working with TEA daily to ensure students are learning and will be prepared going into the next school year.

COVID-19 was first identified during an outbreak in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019. Last week, the World Health Organization in Geneva began describing the novel Coronavirus as a pandemic, and it has since altered the lives of citizens across the nation.

Recommendations to keep away from crowds changed quickly, going from groups of 1,000 to 250, from 50 to 10. Panic buying has led to a shortage of essentials like toilet paper, water bottles, baby formula, eggs and cleaning supplies.

Several universities and colleges, including the University of Texas Rio Grande and South Texas College, have already taken measures to curb the spread, and extended Spring Break one week before moving courses online. Federal, state and local guidelines have been constantly updated based on new information.

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