SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Independent School District will implement an online-only model for the first three weeks of the new school year, as parents and teachers have expressed concern for students heading back to class amid a worsening pandemic.
During a news briefing Tuesday, superintendent Pedro Martinez announced in-person instruction will become available for students after Labor Day. Earlier in the day, Martinez relayed the news to district staff during a virtual meeting.
He also announced the district’s start date will be pushed from Aug. 10 to Aug. 17, pending board approval on Monday.
Campuses will remain open during those three first weeks only for essential services, such as meal and device distribution.
Once the three-week period of universal remote learning is over, the district must allow students who want to to attend school in-person. Schools will have plexiglass and dividers installed, and a document with details about school meals and transportation will be released to staff by the end of the week, Martinez said.
Families will be asked to make the decision before school starts, whether they want to send their students back to school after Labor Day or keep them at home doing remote learning. That decision, though, would only pertain to the remaining six weeks of the first, nine-week grading period.
Students’ performance will be looked at every nine weeks, to see if students are struggling or needing more support.
“We will not allow our children to fall behind or have gaps,” he said. “We don’t want children jumping from one to the other but we will allow change every nine weeks.”
About 31% of parents have expressed they prefer in-person instruction versus virtual learning, Martinez said Tuesday. That’s a stark difference from a survey conducted in early June, when Martinez said 87% of wanted in-person instruction for their children.
The goal, Martinez said, is to accommodate between 25-50% of students in the classroom. If the district is able to meet those arrangements, schools will have one team of teachers dedicated to in-person instruction, and another team of teachers focused on remote instruction.
“This will allow me to accommodate all of our staff who have safety concerns, who have safety risks, " he said, adding that teams would work in different shifts.
However, Martinez is hopeful the state will give SAISD and other districts more flexibility to handle in-person instruction. He’s concerned, for instance there may be a campus where 80-90% of students want to attend in-person.
“I may have to leverage - I mean, if I can get the flexibility from the state - I may have to do an every other day option just to ensure that, again, that I can I can have safety. Otherwise, I can offer some of those parents seat at other schools that have the space. But as you know, they just creates more challenges for families,” Martinez said.
Martinez and Board of Trustees President Patti Radle have both either signed or supported letters to Gov. Greg Abbott in the past week asking for more flexibility to allow school districts to design instructional systems based on local needs and conditions.
WATCH: SAISD superintendent discusses 2020-21 school plans, start date
SAISD’s new plans were announced as local officials, parents and teachers have expressed concern about sending children to campus with a rise in COVID-19 cases.
The Alliance of San Antonio Teachers and Support Personnel, which is the union for SAISD teachers, has joined other unions and groups from Bexar County in asking local and state decision makers to allow only remote learning for at least the first nine weeks of the school year.
“In looking around at the current situation, what we see is a spike in COVID cases,” said union president Alejandra Lopez. “We see this spike as a direct result of the governor’s decision to reopen our economy in May. And we are, as a community, really grappling with what these numbers mean and what school reopening would mean in the context of a spike in COVID cases. And so, you know, we’re asking for more flexibility from TEA and the governor around how local communities can react to their conditions in their communities.”
While Martinez said he would like the flexibility to make that option, he also said he does not believe long-term, across-the-board, remote learning works for the district’s community, noting that schools may be a “refuge” for students.
“This pandemic, six months from now, a year from now, will be behind us... The ramifications of it, whether it’s the economically or academically, they’re going to continue after that,” he said. “And I want to make sure that in our district, we have done everything that we can to protect our children, and to ensure they don’t lose, that they don’t get behind academically...”
With schools set to reopen, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said during Monday’s news conference there is “going to be a problem.”
“And you got teachers that are going to be in a vulnerable position,” he said in the briefing, in which San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced 565 new COVID-19 cases and 11 additional deaths. “That is an incredible thing to try to handle, like trying to herd a lot of wildcats.”
Wolff is calling on the Texas Education Agency to give local school districts more flexibility in determining how to reopen safely.
Last week, the TEA issued guidance for school districts as the state continues to see an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
As the plan stands now, parents can choose to send their children to full-time on-campus or remote learning for the 2020-21 school year. Students will be able to switch formats at the end of grading periods.
Masks will be mandatory for students older than 10 years old and teachers in counties with 20 or more COVID-19 cases.