SAN ANTONIO – After weeks of frequently-changing guidance issued by state officials, local officials and the Texas Education Agency, school will soon be back in session amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the summer months have been filled with confusion for Texas students, parents and teachers, most local school districts now have their plans set, aided by a new directive from Metro Health addressing in-person instruction and athletics, while the community continues to experience significant community spread.
All schools, public and private, are encouraged to follow the directive, which includes a school safety indicator officials can use to help them decide how to open. However, the directive is not enforceable, and state officials have said schools cannot be closed by local health authorities until an outbreak is discovered on campus.
Most Bexar County schools will only offer remote instruction when the academic year begins over the next couple of weeks, while some school districts outside the county are moving forward with plans to open in-person. (Click here to see the start dates for each school district.)
Here’s everything we know about the plan to reopen.
School districts in charge of deciding how to move forward
Under Texas Education Agency guidance, schools can teach exclusively remote for up to eight weeks without risking full funding. Beyond that, the districts must apply for a waiver that the agency will review on a case-by-case basis.
After local health authorities across Texas ordered schools to remain closed for in-person instruction as community spread still runs rampant, Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton upended the directives, issuing an opinion that health authorities could not close schools until an outbreak occurs at the campus.
Instead, they said that decision should be left to each school board’s trustees.
So far, school boards in two local districts -- Edgewood and South San ISDs -- have already approved online-only learning for the first eight weeks. Other districts have only approved online-only learning for the first three or four weeks.
How Metro Health is helping schools assess safety of reopening
After holding a virtual town hall to elicit feedback from the community, Metro Health released an amended directive on Friday regarding the reopening of schools.
Under the directive, school districts are required to report to Metro Health weekly the number of COVID-19-positive students and teachers, the percentage of staff and students absent or sent home in the last 14 days due to COVID-like illness and the number of students with influenza-like illness.
Districts should also create a seven-person panel to help provide guidance to the superintendent and school boards. The panels should include a student, a teacher, a parent, a non-instructional staffer, a school nurse, a pediatrician and a human resources representative.
School safety indicator
Schools should tie operational levels to the rate of community spread of COVID-19, according to the order.
To help with that, Metro Health released a school safety indicator, which is based on three factors:
- Positivity rate - which is defined as the percentage of lab tests performed in the past week that ended up being positive for COVID-19. The rate is currently at 14.9% The goal is to get it down to 5% or lower.
- Doubling time - which is defined as how many days it takes for the number of cases to double. The doubling time is currently at 21 days which Metro Health Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo described as “good.”
- A two-week continuous decline in COVID-19 cases, which hasn’t currently been reached.
When the risk level is high, schools should not offer in-person instruction, Metro Health advised. However, teachers can provide support services for special needs students, at-risk students and students who lack access to resources, as long as it does not involve close contact.
If the risk level is moderate, schools can consider reopening in-person, but the directive recommends schools prioritize the same students listed above. Classrooms should have six or fewer students and occupancy should not exceed 25%.
When the risk is low, in-person instruction should still take place under CDC guidance to minimize community transition. These actions include social distancing, frequent hand hygiene and face coverings in close-contact scenarios.
Currently, the risk level is high, and Bexar County school districts have all indicated they would follow the directive.
What will a typical in-person school day look like?
Teachers and staff will be required to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before setting foot on campus each day, according to the TEA. That includes the taking of temperatures.
Schools may consider screening children for virus symptoms via phone, in-person or electronically, but temperature checks are not recommended for otherwise asymptomatic students.
The TEA states campuses should attempt to have hand sanitizing/hand washing stations at entrances and in classrooms; encourage good hygiene; institute cleaning practices; and open windows when appropriate to improve air flow.
Schools must comply with the governor’s mandate on face coverings, the TEA states. There are exclusions, such as wearing them for athletic or extra-curricular activities.
When the risk level is high or moderate in San Antonio, Metro Health states students and staff should use a fresh mask each day. In addition, staff should wear eye protection when indoors and within six feet of students who can’t wear masks. At all risk levels, schools should consider providing a fresh mask per-person per-day.
Campuses should places desks at least six feet apart if the classroom allows and develop an entry and exit plan to reduce crowding, among other suggestions. Read more about practices to mitigate the spread of the virus in schools here.
Sports competitions discouraged in Bexar County
In Bexar County, Metro Health recommends games and competitions should not happen until the risk of contracting COVID-19 is low.
When the risk level is high, athletes should only engage in drills or conditioning at home with members of their household. When the risk level is moderate, athletes can begin to practice in small cohorts of six or fewer students, according to the directive.
Some schools move forward with in-person plans
Beyond Bexar County lines, where some districts have already held off on in-person instruction until October, others are moving forward with plans to open campuses.
School districts like Boerne ISD and Comal ISD, which have several campuses in Bexar County, are allowing parents to send their children to school for in-person instruction at the start of the school year.
Comal trustees are moving forward with the plan despite concerns voiced by parents and teachers, who noted that the positivity rate in Comal County is around 15%.
With schools in both Bexar and Guadalupe County, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District board of trustees voted to offer remote-only learning until Sept. 8.
What we don’t know
With guidance changing so rapidly, it remains to be seen how closely Bexar County schools can follow social distancing protocols and adhere to the directive issued by Metro Health.
The circumstances may also result in a possible showdown between local school districts and the Texas Education Agency. If the agency does not accept the waiver requests of school districts who want to delay in-person instruction beyond the first eight weeks of school, the school district would have to choose between risking funding or going to court to resolve the matter.
Schools that have already reopened in other parts of the country have shown how difficult reopening is.
A Georgia school district made national headlines after a photo surfaced showing students packed into a hallway. In another Georgia school district, more than 250 students and eight teachers have been quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure.