South Texas educators call on state to extend online instruction

McALLEN — Education leaders across South Texas on Tuesday petitioned the state’s education commissioner, Mike Morath, to approve a region-wide COVID-19 response plan that would include another waiver allowing districts to continue online instruction in the event of an infection spike.

Signed by 27 of Region One’s 38 superintendents, the letter requests that school districts in the area that experience a hospitalization rate higher than 15% — as reported by the Texas Department of Health Services — continue to offer remote instruction for 100% of families without having their funding affected by their instructional method.

The letter requests that rapid COVID-19 tests be made available for priority students who choose to attend campus, and that the plan be implemented no later than Jan. 4 for the next 20 days of instruction.

“We make this request for the safety and protection of our students and staff,” the letter reads.

State Board of Education Member Ruben Cortez and McAllen ISD Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez made that appeal in person during a broadcast from McAllen High School. Several of the letter’s other signers joined them via videoconference.

“Our public schools are the backbone of our community, and we have to protect them. That starts with making the health safety of students and staff our top priority,” Cortez said.

Cortez and Gonzalez both cited the holidays as a main reason for calling for more instructional flexibility, singling out Christmas and New Year’s Day as likely occasions for community spread.

“If right after the first they’re supposed to come into our schools three or four days afterwards, you know, what I would hate to happen in any of our schools if these numbers continue to rise throughout the region, is for that to cause a superspreader event at any of our campuses,” Cortez said. “We don’t want that.”

Community spread has been the main cause for concern for students who have already returned to area campuses, Gonzalez said, touting the efficacy of coronavirus-prevention methods in place at Region One schools.

“Our teachers and our staff across Region One in our schools are doing a very good job of social distancing, doing a very good job of making sure that they protect themselves with regards to facial coverings,” he said.

According to Cortez, some of the area’s districts have already asked about modifying reopening plans, and some of those requests have been rejected.

“We believe that the best possibility of getting the commissioner to say yes is through a regional approach,” he said.

Gonzalez said the superintendents didn’t opt to submit a unified plan for teachers and staff, and that the plan proposed by the letter wouldn’t be compulsory.

“The collective effort was just to make sure that we got a yes, but with regard to the execution, that’s just going to depend on the reality of what every superintendent’s dealing with,” he said.

Neither of the men ruled out the possibility of seeking another waiver after the one they’re proposing for January.

“It’s very difficult to say that we wouldn’t come back for another four-week waiver after these four weeks. It just depends,” Gonzalez said.

Cortez said the group is hoping to receive a response from Morath by Friday.