With education and the workforce heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders expressed confidence in the Valley’s ability to forge a new path ahead.
On Tuesday, the Mission location for the local nonprofit Teach for America held an hour-long panel where local officials discussed the challenges the pandemic has brought to the Valley, and how the area can recover from it.
“Resilient RGV,” which was moderated by University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Vice President Veronica Gonzales, included Texas Workforce Commission Commissioner for Labor Julian Alvarez III, Senior Director of Educate Texas/RGV FOCUS Rodney H. Rodriguez and state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa as panelists for the discussion.
“We’ll all agree it’s been a very challenging 2020, perhaps more so in the RGV than in many other locations and while the challenges haven’t gone away and won’t for a long time, it’s important to be looking for and to plan for the future we want to build,” Gonzalez said at the beginning. “Today’s discussion will center around the key question of how education and workforce development can lead to a stronger RGV post-COVID.”
The panelists cited several challenges that have arisen since the COVID-19 pandemic that are affecting the workforce and education such as a deficit in the state budget that could affect how public education will be funded in the next legislative session, a lack of engagement between students and parents to get them more involved in school, no proper preparation for students facing a post-secondary career or job path and whether or not the Texas Education Agency will approve more waivers for school districts to allow them to continue virtual learning.
“The RGV is switching over from an agricultural based economy to a healthcare-based where we are molding students into the healthcare and advanced manufacturing professions to, as a community, identify the opportunities and resources we need to be successful,” Sen. Hinojosa said. “Everyone always talks about how we’re growing, but it takes a lot of work. Our population is young, we have a resource of people wanting to educate themselves to become one of the leading areas of the state.”
Rodriguez said that due to how school districts have adjusted to using remote learning, schools may begin to implement it on a regular basis and that employers may follow suit even post COVID.
“It’s something school districts have done a phenomenal job in, we will have that experience and maybe move forward in a different plan where we have a mix of remote and in person learning that will last,” Rodriguez said. “Students may want to continue this and from challenges come opportunities as well so we will be in a better position to not only extend learning opportunities, but to grow from it.”
Despite the praise for remote learning, all panelists agreed it has come with its challenges, specifically broadband connectivity where people in rural areas have not been able to access school.
“We were not prepared for this and it is something we as a collective organization have seen especially in the rural areas,” Rodriguez said, adding that several grassroot organizations and school districts and cities have been working together to provide Wi-Fi access to the community.
To combat this, Sen. Hinojosa said a primary focus of the upcoming legislative session will be to set up a statewide plan to provide broadband connectivity to all Texas residents.
“It really needs to be a united effort by the state and cannot be done on a piecemeal basis by cities and counties on their own,” Hinojosa said. “We need to have a statewide plan to access and provide it across the state and it will allow us to access federal funding if we have a statewide plan.”
Though Rodriguez said there was a need to provide easy access to the internet, it will still be challenging for economically challenged individuals to receive it.
“Due to the unemployment rate and impact from COVID these people are struggling to get the basic necessities,” Rodriguez said. “It’s great and dandy we will have all this great equipment but if people can’t pay their light, how are they going to access this? We need to keep in mind this will be a huge challenge moving forward.”