The marquee in front of Robert F. McDermott Elementary School displays the date school will begin virtually.
The marquee in front of Robert F. McDermott Elementary School displays the date school will begin virtually. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Local health authorities don’t have the power to preemptively close school campuses until they experience an outbreak, according to Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

While the City of San Antonio’s attorney doesn’t agree with the state leaders’ interpretation of the law, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District rescinded its order barring campuses from opening until after Labor Day. Instead, health authorities said they would recommend school districts study a specific set of health metrics and open campuses in phases, gradually bringing more students back on campus when health conditions allow.

Metro Health Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo unveiled those metrics Wednesday night at a virtual town hall and plans to issue an updated health order with recommendations for reopening later this week.

Districts should review the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests and the amount of time it takes for the total number of coronavirus cases to double. They should also pay close attention to whether there is a continuous decline in coronavirus cases for two consecutive weeks, she said.

The current positivity rate from tests is at 14.8 percent. Woo said the goal is for this rate to be at 5 percent or lower. The doubling time is at 21 days, within the local goal of more than 18 days.

Woo said that school districts should think of reopening in so-called red, yellow, and green zones and work to mitigate the risk of coronavirus spread.

The medical director emphasized there will be some risk associated with reopening schools no matter what, and schools should be prepared for outbreaks to happen, she said.

“I think there are ways to lower the risk,” Woo said. “It is not going to be zero-risk. But I think there are ways to lower the risk to where it is similar to the risk you would experience going shopping.”

In the red zone, in-person learning would be limited to a small number of special-needs students and prohibit extracurricular activities. In the yellow zone, schools could bring more students onto campus including those who have unsafe home environments or those who lack a reliable internet connection Woo said.

In the green zone, all students would be allowed onto campus but would have to adhere to social distancing and mask requirements.

“We are still in the red zone right now,” Woo said.

The risk level in Bexar County is between severe and critical, the two highest points on a scale to measure the state of the local outbreak. The bar is updated weekly to reflect the current health data, a city spokeswoman said.

At the Wednesday night town hall, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said districts must approach reopening with balance.

“Once guidance from Metro Health says it is safe to start bringing students back into the buildings, I really think we have got to balance what all of us agree is a concern around health and safety with a concern around learning loss,” Woods said. “Virtual learning, while it may work well for some students and families because of their independent circumstance, just simply doesn’t work as well for others.”

Earlier this week, San Antonio ISD trustees discussed their own color-coded system that would allow the district to slowly bring students back into campus. The maximum safety level keeps all students learning from home remotely while the normal safety level brings everyone back to campus. In between are three additional levels with 25 percent, 50 percent, and 75 percent of students learning in-person.

Even in Metro Health’s green zone, it’s unlikely SAISD schools would be at 100 percent of capacity, San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said.

“This is what I see probably our new normal that we could reach in our first semester,” Martinez said referencing the green zone. “For us this means under 50 percent of our students still being in schools – very strict [personal protective equipment and] very strict safety guidelines.”

Metro Health will ask each school system to create a seven-person COVID-19 panel that will include one student, teacher, parent, non-instructional staffer, medical professional, human resources representative, and one person of the district’s choosing.

This panel will make recommendations to the superintendent and the medical representative will be tasked with reporting information to Metro Health. Districts will report COVID-19 cases to the City in the same way they currently report influenza cases, Woo said. They will also be asked to disclose case numbers on their websites.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.