The McAllen school district welcomed its 1,600-odd teachers to the 2020-21 school year with its annual general assembly Tuesday.

Often held in a big venue like the McAllen Convention Center, the general assembly is traditionally more akin to a pep rally than a job orientation, complete with musical numbers, raucous cheering for the district’s accomplishments, and speeches given by guest speakers and administrators.

McAllen ISD teachers began work Monday; students start on Aug. 24.

Last year’s general assembly lasted two and a half hours. On account of the pandemic, this year’s assembly was relegated to a video lasting 12 minutes and 42 seconds.

Teachers watched the video at 1 p.m. Tuesday, many of them watching while in team meetings with other teachers and administrators, perhaps the only way to instill a sense of community while abiding by social distancing measures that have stretched on for almost half a year in the education sphere.

Much of this year’s assembly focused on the types of achievements any regular assembly would: the district earned a perfect score in the financial integrity rating system of Texas; Sam Houston Elementary was recognized as a Blue Ribbon school; McAllen ISD was awarded both the Region One School Board of the Year award and the Superintendent of the Year Award.

There were jokes, there were still speeches and there were still musical numbers.

“I just want to wish you a lot of luck this coming year,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said in the video. “I know there’s a lot of apprehension about going back to in-school teaching, but if anybody can do it, it’s McAllen Independent School District, ‘cause you all stand for excellence.”

Cortez, along with other speakers at the event that included Mayor Jim Darling and MISD Board President Conrado Alvarado expressed confidence in the district despite uncertainties for the upcoming year.

Despite the confidence, the stark difference between this year’s general assembly and assemblies of years past points to just how different this school year will be.

At least the first four weeks of instruction at the district will be completely virtual, according to Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez.

“At the end of four weeks we are going to come back to our board and make a recommendation, and we could potentially go another four weeks that would take us into October,” he said in a different video posted on the district’s Facebook page Tuesday. “So that’ll give us eight weeks of runway if the board approves that second four weeks, and then at that point we can come back and reevaluate how we’re going to open safely and do all the things we need to do.”

Gonzalez discussed what conditions would be necessary for in-person instruction with Dr. Edward Requenez, chief of staff at Edinburg Regional Hospital, in the video. Requenez said the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a set of recommendations for classroom reopening that lists getting kids back in school as a top priority.

“I 100% agree with that. I don’t know any doctor who doesn’t agree with that,” he said. “We don’t send our kids to school in the middle of an uncontrolled pandemic, so what we need to do is we need to get this under control.”

A variety of factors will determine when in-person instruction returns, Requenez said, including the amount of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the area, whether contact tracing can be conducted effectively and overall infection rates in the region.

According to Requenez, state numbers estimate prevalence is somewhere around 2,200 cases per 100,000 residents in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It seems as though the state is providing numbers that suggest that the numbers are actually much higher than what we’re reporting at the county level,” he said.

Requenez said that rate may have to be cut by more than half before students return to classrooms in the Valley.

“If you look at what the governor has said in the past, back in May, he used a benchmark of a 10% positivity rate in testing as a marker to indicate whether or not things were looking good or looking bad,” he said. “And here in the Valley, we remain at over 10% of the tests being administered, and we have lots more tests being administered now than ever before…”

Requenez predicts that semblance of normalcy could return in a matter of weeks if social distancing and hygienic guidelines are strictly adhered to. If the rules aren’t followed, he’s not sure when any sort of normalcy, or in-person classes, will resume.

When pandemic measures do curb COVID-19, Requenez says social distancing measures will be important to keeping it curbed. Social pandemic measures, including masks, must be enforced on and off Valley campuses, he said.

“We have schools here in the Valley that successfully enforce dress codes; this should be no different,” he said. “It can be done, and while there will be hiccups along the way and it won’t be perfect, it will be better than not trying at all.”