Coronavirus fears threaten Spring Break on South Padre Island


UTRGV goes online only; County judge says to limit gatherings as 18 people under self-quarantine

Students drink on the beach during the annual ritual of Spring Break March 25, 2008 on South Padre Island, Texas. The South Texas island is one of the top Spring Break destinations and attracts students from all over the country. (Photo by Rick Gershon/Getty Images)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — As coronavirus precautions change life for millions around the globe, life also has been altered for South Texas border communities where the largest university has gone to online-only classes, the largest county is advising residents not to congregate in large groups, and South Padre Island might be closed to springbreakers.

On Friday afternoon, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. announced that four people have been tested for COVID-19; two tests were negative and two are still pending. In addition, 18 people in the county are under self-quarantine but showing no symptoms of the coronavirus disease.

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. on Friday announced he is consulting with health officials and might shut down Spring Break activities on South Padre Island, which is a popular destination for college students, but has had a drop in beachgoers due to fears of the coronavirus. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

In a news conference, Treviño also said he is consulting with health officials about possibly canceling Spring Break events on South Padre Island. The island is a historically popular destination and draws thousands of college students every year who come for concerts and the subtropical beach climate. On Friday, however, there was a noticeable lack of young beachgoers, visitors told Border Report.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez on Friday advised residents to limit gatherings to fewer than 1,000 people. His announcement came after a Thursday conference call with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, state health officials and county officials from throughout Texas.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez on Friday urged residents in his South Texas community to limit large gatherings to under 1,000 people. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“I take seriously any action that might have an economic impact on Hidalgo County,” Cortez said in a statement. “But even more serious is the health and well-being of Hidalgo County residents. Therefore, I am urging residents to follow the advice of state health experts and reconsider attending any mass gatherings that involve large crowds.”

Gov. Abbott on Friday declared a state disaster for all counties in Texas. He also directed state agencies to restrict visitation at nursing homes, state-sponsored living centers, hospitals and daycare centers.

Read KXAN’s story on Gov. Abbott’s declaration.

The Edinburg campus of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is just one of several campuses in South Texas. The university has extended Spring Break until March 23 and then will offer online-only classes. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which has campuses throughout South Texas in multiple counties, late Thursday issued a statement that Spring Break will be extended an extra week to help reduce any spread of coronavirus. And when classes resume on March 23, all will be held online. All university-related events also have been canceled until further notice, UTRGV President Guy Bailey said. Officials are still deciding whether or not to hold commencement ceremonies.

It’s unclear whether students will return to traditional classrooms for the remainder of the spring semester, but university officials told Border Report that given the current pandemic, it is unlikely classes will be held on campus for several months.

That has some wondering about the proficiency of professors to teach online classes, which can be an art unto itself, several people told Border Report on Friday. Mastering the online platforms of Blackboard, Canvas and SoftChalk can take years and instructors now are being thrust into this role due to this crisis.

UTRGV officials on Monday are holding a meeting to help train instructors on online instruction.

Border Report also reached out to the University of Texas System on Friday and asked whether a rule barring professors from teaching only so many online courses will be waived in the coming months if coronavirus fears continue and classes continue to be held online, rather than in classrooms. This story will be updated if information is received.

WiFi for low-income communities

In this low-economic region of South Texas, there also are concerns that many students won’t have access to computers, or high-speed Internet to be able to take online classes. Taking online quizzes through these platforms, for instance, requires un-interrupted transmissions, which could be a problem in South Texas.

The South Texas counties of Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy, Zapata and Starr are the top five counties in the state of Texas with the highest rate of poverty, according to 2015 Census data on counties. Hidalgo County, which is home to the largest South Texas city of McAllen, in 2017 had a poverty rate of 31.8%. Cameron County, where UTRGV has two campus facilities in Brownsville and Harlingen, in 2017 had a poverty rate of 31.2% and was the county with the highest child poverty rate in the state, according to Census data.

On Friday afternoon, staff with U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat who lives in McAllen, announced that to help students with online capabilities, Charter Communications was offering free 60-day Wi-Fi access to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a Spectrum broadband subscription. The company also pledged to partner with school districts and communities to help with online services during this coronavirus crisis. To enroll, call (844) 488-8395. Installation fees will be waived for new student households.

KVEO Reporter Alfredo Cuadros contributed to this report.

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