McAllen High valedictorian Vidal Saenz is congratulated with gifts by McAllen ISD administrators and staff at his home on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — Vidal Saenz was having some chicken strips for lunch Wednesday afternoon when someone rang his doorbell. His mother answered the door and asked Vidal to come outside.

At the front door, he bumped into a delegation from McAllen ISD who came by to deliver some exciting news: Saenz is McAllen High’s 2020 valedictorian.

“They told me I was number one in the class, the valedictorian. It was a huge surprise, I didn’t expect it at all,” Saenz said.

The student got a letter formally naming him valedictorian and a banner with his picture and his new title. His mom got a bouquet of flowers and his dad got a cap.

The Saenzes were one of four families visited by the district Wednesday. David Li of Memorial High, Ana Garcia of Achieve Early College High and Daniel Villagran of Rowe High were all named valedictorians that day and received similar recognition.

“They were amped, they were excited,” Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez, who attended some of the visits Wednesday, said. “Especially now with the whole COVID-19 thing and everybody sheltered in place, it was just nice to be around the kids and around the parents and get that school spirit going.”

Gonzalez said that home visits are how valedictorians are usually notified, although social distancing and COVID-19 precautions made this year’s visits a little different.

“It’s a lot different,” he said. “We’d go inside the house and sit on their couch or sit at the dining table, so this is different with the whole social distancing and staying outside.”

Not being able to talk to valedictorians in their living rooms is one of many things that have changed for the class of 2020. Saenz, the McHi valedictorian, didn’t get to go to prom and didn’t have a last day of class. He may never see many of his 500 classmates again.

“We were at school one day and then we went on break and never came back, so it was a weird ending to senior year,” he said. “The fact that we got to spend most of our senior year was a blessing, because not everyone can do that, but the fact that we got most of it is a blessing.”

He can, however, hold out hope for a traditional graduation. Gonzalez says that the district has penciled in dates from May through August for an actual graduation, contingent on how the pandemic progresses.

“We’re trying our best to have a traditional graduation,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, we’ll do something virtual at some point.”

A parade of cars drive in front of Nikki Rowe valedictorian Daniel Villagran home as he is congratulated by McAllen ISD administrators and staff at his home on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Saenz says he’s hoping one of those dates does work and he gets to say a proper goodbye to his high school and his classmates.

“Not having that won’t take that away, but it just won’t be the same,” he said. “We missed out on a lot of moments, but it’s not what defines us. What defines us is what we do with this pandemic and how we react to it.”

Saenz is planning to react to the pandemic more actively then most. In the fall, he’ll begin studying bioengineering at Rice University and is hoping to focus on bio-tech. He wants to work on designing and improving ventilators one day.

“I was going in the direction of biotechnology, but hearing how crucial technology is to keep people alive, it motivated me to shift my focus,” he said. “Hearing about how important it is, I want to focus on the things that people need just to live through critical illnesses.”