Some in the Alamo Heights Independent School District argue for normalcy, while others want more consideration for the growing health crisis. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Over the course of 30 minutes, Alamo Heights Independent School District parents, students, and teachers gave voice to a broad spectrum of feelings about returning to school this fall amid a worsening public health crisis.

During a school board meeting last week, one father said he would not send his child to school if masks were required – minutes after a teacher cited the skyrocketing number of positive coronavirus cases locally, expressing fear for a return to the classroom. Another educator asked what she could mandate for her own students – right before a student suggested she and her classmates would strike and not return to class if they were forced to resume instruction on campus.

The contrasting views shared at the meeting reflect fissures in the Alamo Heights ISD community and elsewhere in Bexar County over what teachers, parents, and students want school districts to require – or not require – this fall.

In mid-June, Gov. Greg Abbott told lawmakers that students would be safe to return to classrooms this fall, alluding to “higher safety standards” that would be in place. But neither Abbott nor the Texas Education Agency (TEA) have defined such standards. AHISD is one of the more than 1,000 Texas school districts trying to plan for campuses to reopen without information from the State outlining what will be required of them.

“We know that the unknown is difficult for everyone,” said Frank Alfaro, AHISD’s assistant superintendent for administrative services. “We are shaking our fists, too, [over the lack of] clarity. … We get that clear expectations, especially in an uncertain time, is what people need.”

For weeks, districts have expected the State to issue public health guidance that would inform school district requirements regarding social distancing and other precautions. At the time of Abbott’s announcement, a TEA spokesman confirmed the State would not require students to be tested for COVID-19 symptoms or to wear masks.

But last week, the State delayed providing any other specific health guidance, instead announcing only that it would fund districts for both in-person and remote instruction.

Until that time, districts didn’t know they would receive full funding for distance learning. When Alamo Heights ISD leaders learned this, they quickly decided they would offer students just one of two options this fall: at-home or in-person. Unlike those in some districts, Alamo Heights students wouldn’t have access to a hybrid model allowing them to learn some days on campus and other days at home.

And in the absence of further State guidance, how in-person instruction will be conducted is unclear.

At last week’s school board meeting, two fathers voiced objections to any student being required to wear a mask – even for part of the day.

“It is pretty [impractical] to expect [young students] to stay in a mask,” said one father, who did not object to teachers wearing masks. “I think that more damage could potentially be done with messing with a mask. I also think there needs to be a return to as much normalcy as possible.

“I do think that some of the mental health implications – the behavioral implications that I’ve already seen with my kids due to a kind of abnormal experience – are a bigger issue and a bigger risk than kids contracting the COVID-19, the health effects of COVID-19, or even them spreading COVID-19.”

Another parent with middle school and elementary students said he worried about distance learning, which he said was not successful for his kids. He acknowledged that some families and teachers wouldn’t feel comfortable returning to campus but asked the district to not let fear drive its decision-making.

Both parents represent a portion of the Alamo Heights community that wants to see a return to normal schooling.

A message on social media in recent weeks asked AHISD parents to sign a letter to Abbott, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, and State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) requesting that children be in class five full days a week, eat in the cafeteria, and ride the school bus to campus.

Not everyone agreed. Student Sofia Rojo questioned the motives of parents pushing for a return to normal schooling, calling campuses the “perfect place to spread the disease.”

She told the AHISD board she was concerned for immunocompromised students and staff and urged trustees to make decisions based on science and the health of the community.

Several teachers also addressed the board with concerns that it wouldn’t be safe to start class in person.

“Each of my colleagues and I want to go back to face-to-face instruction; however, many of us don’t see it as a viable or realistic option given our current data,” high school teacher Talia Howard said. “Many of us are not convinced it is safe, appropriate, or the correct decision for anyone in the state of Texas right now to return to face-to-face instruction.”

High school teacher Adriene Goodwin also spoke, questioning whether individual teachers would be permitted to require mask-wearing in their classrooms.

Teachers have circulated a document internally, drafting a list of concerns and considerations for a fall reopening. Included in the list of questions: Will the district resurvey staff on their comfort level regarding a return to campus? How will teachers suffering serious infections be supported through recovery and return? Is there a threshold of positive coronavirus cases that will force the district to make every student learn from home?

Without clear directions from the State, Alamo Heights ISD and many other districts are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We can’t make any decision, because the second TEA says something to us, it undoes what we have out there,” Alfaro said by phone this week. “The decision on whether to have masks or not is one action within an array of things that TEA may or may not be requiring of us.

“The context in which parents have to weigh whether it is important, whether it is worth [students] wearing a mask or not, can really only be made in the context of … what TEA allows us for class size, buses, passing periods, what we’re supposed to do with teachers, and that kind of stuff.”

School districts expect public health guidance could be released as early as the end of this week or early next.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.