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State leaders, Hidalgo County officials follow the lead set by Rep. Canales on helping protect students, teachers, and community for the reopening of private and public schools - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Featured: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, Chair, House Committee on Transportation,  on Thursday, February 27, 2020, addressing members of the International Right of Way Association’s 2nd Annual Oil and Gas Pipeline Symposium in Houston.

Photograph Courtesy REP. CANALES FACEBOOK

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State leaders, Hidalgo County officials follow the lead set by Rep. Canales on helping protect students, teachers, and community for the reopening of private and public schools 

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

Top elected and appointed leaders in the state are following recommendations spearheaded by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which are designed to help protect Texans, especially students, teachers, and parents, from the spread of COVID-19 as public and private schools, prepare to open in a matter of weeks.

Thursday, August 20, 2020, is the beginning of the upcoming school year in Texas.

In April 2020, Canales also helped lead the legislative charge to end in-person instruction of students in public schools for the Spring 2020 semester, as well as cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly referred to as its acronym (initials) STAAR, for that period.

This summer, Canales, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation, has led the effort to call on Gov. Greg Abbott to allow school districts, especially those in deep South Texas, to conduct classes online – for the foreseeable near future – rather than rush students, teachers, and staff into overflowing campuses, which would risk them to exposure to COVID-19.

In a related matter, Canales also called on Abbott to seek federal permission to delay the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly referred to as its acronym (initials) STAAR, for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year.

The governor has the authority to overrule local government officials in Texas on decisions, including those involving a public health crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected most of the nation.

“We are one of the nation’s worst hotspots, yet (the) TEA (Texas Education Agency) continues to push our local communities to bring our children together in crowded classrooms without the opportunity or time to design, trial, and implement a proper health and safety plan for everyone in the school system,” said the House District 40 state lawmaker.

The current plan by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to allow Texas students to have the option of returning into public school classrooms, rather than take courses online, “seemingly ignores the relentless spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in my community,” Canales advised Abbott.

“As school districts across the state prepare to open their doors for the 2021 academic year, they are faced with a mountain of uncertainty: health and safety of teachers and students, student attendance, technology access, curriculum and more,” he said. “The mandated State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam should not be an added burden or cause of stress for teachers, parents, and students, and I urge you to request a federal waiver for the administration of the STAAR test for the 2020-2021 school year.

Canales’ concerns are backed up by the increasing number of infections, illnesses, and deaths being caused by COVID-19 in deep South Texas.

On Wednesday, July 15, 2020, Hidalgo County saw its deadliest day yet, reporting that 35 residents died due to complications related to COVID-19 and 651 people learned they have tested positive for the virus, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortéz said. This brings the total number of positive cases to 9,244.

“My most sincere condolences go out to the family and friends of these 35 people. We are doing the best that we can to curb the spread of this virus but we still need your help. It is important that we maintain our distance and avoid all other social gatherings outside of our household,” said Cortéz. “We are expecting higher numbers as the federal test results come in.” 

As of Wednesday, July 15, 2020, 867 people have been hospitalized with complications from the disease with 221 of those in intensive care units.

A total of 776people were released from isolation on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, meaning that they have been symptom-free for 10 days, including three days without a fever.  Currently, there are 4,871 net active cases and 1,079 test results pending. 

With such grim figures, Canales endorsed the decision by Hidalgo County officials to prevent students, for the time being, from gathering in classrooms. 

“Hidalgo County pumped the brakes on beginning in-person class locally this afternoon (Tuesday, July 14, 2020), issuing an order that prevents both private and public schools from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade from returning to campus until after September 27,” the House District 40 state lawmaker said. “Dr. Iván Meléndez, in his capacity as the Hidalgo County local health authority, issued the order, which requires instruction to be provided through virtual, remote, or distance learning only.”

Administrators, teachers, and staff may conduct the remote learning process, or other operations while on-campus provided they follow all CDC (U.S.Centers for Disease Control) guidelines, including social distancing and wearing facial coverings at al times.

“I commend Dr. Meléndez for putting the safety of our students, teachers, and district staff first,” said Cortéz. “As our numbers continue to rise, it is vital that we protect our children and our teachers. Until we can get a better handle on this virus we must continue to keep our distance from each other.”

Schools will not be allowed to host any school-sponsored events and activities, such as clubs, sports, fairs, exhibitions, and academic or athletic competitions, until after on-campus instruction resumes. At least two weeks before resuming on-campus instruction, each school district must develop and submit a plan to parents for their reopening.

Canales has used such statistics to impress upon Abbott the need to hold back on allowing students to physically go back into the classrooms.

“I hope that you will consider stopping or delaying the return of in-person learning until public health data demonstrates that it is safe for the students, families, teachers, and school employees,” he wrote in his correspondence, dated Tuesday, July 9, 2020, to the governor.

According to the Texas Education Agency, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam does the following:

• Starting in third grade through the end of middle school, students across Texas take STAAR tests in math and reading at the end of each school year. Some years, they also take STAAR tests in writing, science or social studies — depending on which grade they are in; and

• When students get to high school, they take STAAR end-of-course tests in English, algebra, biology, and U.S. history to show they are ready for graduation.

By waiving the STAAR exam requirements, school districts will have the flexibility to focus on the delivery of instruction and adapting the uncertainty of the calendar school years, while remaining responsive to the public health crisis, Canales said. 

“Reducing STAAR testing also has the potential of moving much-needed education dollars from standardized testing to COVID-19 response in our schools. In addition, TEA has advised school districts to prepare not only for an array of teaching methods but disruptions to the instructional calendar,” Canales noted. “Thus it does not make sense to hold our school system accountable and penalize them on the basis of these tests.”

Canales’ communication with Abbott follows in its entirety:

July 9, 2020

The Honorable Greg Abbott
Governor of Texas
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711

Dear Governor Abbott:

I am writing to you today to express my deep concern with the decision to bring our students back for in-person schooling this fall. My teachers, staff, and parents are justifiably worried that our school districts will not be prepared to protect the employees or the students in the upcoming school year. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) provided public health guidance for our schools just two days ago, and there is simply not enough time for our districts to be sufficiently prepared by the time school is scheduled to start in a few weeks.

Furthermore, the existing plan to return to school seemingly ignores the relentless spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in my community. We are one of the nation’s worst hotspots, yet TEA continues to push our local communities to bring our children together in crowded classrooms without the opportunity or time to design, trial, and implement a proper health and safety plan for everyone without the school system.

In addition to providing delayed guidance, TEA continues to suggest the starting school is safe because “relatively few children with COVID-19 are hospitalized or have severe symptoms”. This reasoning completely ignores our school teachers and faculty and the overall impact that spreading the virus within our schools will have on communities around Texas. In the past three days, Hidalgo County has lost 44 individuals to COVID-19. Not only has my community ben constrained by the lack of testing (for COVID-19), but results from testing are coming back too slowly. Returning to in-person instruction will certainly amplify this crisis.

I have spent my time in the Texas Legislature fighting to ensure that our teachers and schools have everything they need to be successful. Education each and every young Texan continues to be my top priority, but consider the current health crisis, it is difficult to visualize success under this current scenario.

I hope that you will consider stopping or delaying the return of in-person learning until public health data demonstrates that it is safe for the students, families, teachers, and school employees. Thank you for your attention to this vital matter, and please do not hesitate to contact my office to discuss this further.

Very truly yours,

Terry Canales

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His letter to the governor regarding the STAAR also follows in its entirety:

July 10, 2020

The Honorable Greg Abbott
Governor of Texas
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711

Dear Governor Abbott:

As school districts across the state prepare to open their doors for the 2021 academic year, they are faced with a mountain of uncertainty: health and safety of teachers and students student attendance, technology access, curriculum, and more. The mandated State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam should not be an added burden or cause of stress for teachers, parents, and students, and I urge you to request a federal waiver for the administration of the STAAR test for the 2020-2021 school year.

By waiving the STAAR exam requirements, school districts will have the flexibility to focus on the delivery of instruction and adapting the uncertainty of the calendar school years, while remaining responsive to the public health crisis. Reducing STAAR testing also has the potential of moving much-needed education dollars from standardized testing to COVID-19 response in our schools. In addition, TEA has advised school districts to prepare not only for an array of teaching methods but disruptions to the instructional calendar. Thus it does not make sense to hold our school system accountable and penalize them on the basis of these tests.

The way we ensure that every student succeeds is not by measuring their academic capacity in a standardized test but rather allowing them the opportunity to gain as much knowledge as possible in this unconventional learning environment. For this upcoming school year, I ask that you hit pause on STAAR testing to let us focus on doing what is best for the teachers, parents, students, and families.

Thank you for your attention to this vital matter and for considering my request. If you need any further information or clarifications, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

Very truly yours,

Terry Canales

ABBOTT ANNOUNCES SURGE OF DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE RESOURCES TO THE VALLEY

Abbott on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, announced that the Department of Defense (DOD) will surge resources to the Rio Grande Valley to help combat COVID-19. The DOD will send a U.S. Army Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force (UAMTF) to provide medical and support professionals needed in Rio Grande Valley hospitals.

Additionally, the Texas Division of Emergency Management is coordinating with local officials to identify alternate sites, such as area hotels, and contract medical staff to care for and house patients that are recovering from COVID-19. This will ensure additional hospital capacity in both Cameron and Hidalgo counties.

“As the State of Texas mitigates the spread of COVID-19, we are continuing to work closely with our local and federal partners to identify outbreaks and provide our communities with the resources they need to keep Texans safe,” said Abbott. “I am grateful to our federal partners at the Department of Defense for sending these teams to the Valley and working within the community to protect public health and combat this virus. These teams, coupled with our newly established partnership with local hotels, will aid in our efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure adequate hospital capacity in the Valley.” 

Additional DOD teams are prepared to support the state and will be announced as teams are assigned.

UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS SYSTEM BOARD OF REGENTS APPROVE PROPOSAL FOR NEW DOCTORAL PROGRAM WITHIN UTRGV SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

The University of Texas System Board of Regents recently approved a degree proposal for a doctorate in human genetics for the UTRGV School of Medicine.

The new Ph.D. program – a full-time, four-year, 72-credit-hour degree plan – will focus on applications of human genetics to medicine.

Designed to address the growing demand for genetics expertise in biomedical research, biotechnology, and the pharmaceutical industry, the research-intensive program will provide broad training in human genetics and genomics.

“The field of human genetics is not only vital for our School of Medicine, but also for the region,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said. “Human genetics plays an important role in how we look at diseases, especially those prevalent in South Texas. We are thrilled that the UT System Board of Regents supports our research and the demand for human geneticists in the region.”

The UT System submitted the Ph.D. program proposal to theTexas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, for review of criteria and appropriate action.  

If approved by the THECB, a site visit will be conducted, with the goal of a fall 2021 start date for the first cohort.

The new Ph.D. program will admit seven students per year until it reaches a steady-state of about 25 students working toward their doctoral degrees.

The UTRGV School of Medicine’s Department of Human Genetics is focused on common diseases with high prevalence in South Texas, including diabetes, obesity and fatty liver disease. Much of the department’s research is conducted in the South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute.

The resources of the South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute include the Genomics Computing Center, one of the world’s largest computing clusters dedicated to human genetic analysis.

They also include a biorepository containing tens of thousands of samples collected over the past 30 years in long-term genetic studies of minority populations. 

(A biorepository is a biological materials repository that collects, processes, stores, and distributes biospecimens to support future scientific investigation Biorepositories can contain or manage specimens from animals, including humans, and many other living organisms.Wikipedia)

Combined with the state-of-the-art scientific equipment available in the UTRGV Department of Human Genetics, the resources of the South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute will provide PhD students with significant opportunities for dissertation research on diseases of high relevance to South Texas.

About UTRGV

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.

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Jaclyn Treviño and Victoria Brito contributed to this article. Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, is the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission. Rep. Canales represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr, and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

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