Alayne Harris (left) and her son Detrick stand for a portrait in front of Young Men's Leadership Academy, where Detrick attends school. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Alayne Harris is torn about sending her seventh grade son back to Young Men’s Leadership Academy when the campus opens its doors for in-person instruction.

“Honestly, I am a little bit on the fence, only because teacher interaction in a classroom setting works better,” Harris said.

After campuses closed in the spring, 12-year-old son Detrick missed his friends but adapted to his new educational environment. Harris also had to adapt, using her smartphone’s hotspot to connect her son to his classes because she doesn’t have home internet.

That meant upgrading her phone plan to allow for more data usage each month just to accommodate his schooling. But when she eventually had to go back to work in insurance verification and authorization at Methodist Hospital, she couldn’t leave her phone with Detrick.

Another student at Young Men’s Leadership Academy loaned Detrick his hotspot device so he could continue his schoolwork on a school-issued iPad. Even with the necessary technology, Harris said Detrick lacked the focus a classroom setting provides and guidance from a teacher who can answer questions.

“We were able to get through it, but it was a bit of a challenge at times,” Harris said. “Especially if he had questions and I’m at work. He did have some help, but most of the time he would have to wait until I got off to help him, or he and I would do Zoom meetings during the day.”

Harris is leaning toward keeping Detrick at home when school opens up for in-person learning, as a health precaution. Her parents, who are in their 70s, live next door, so she’s cautious about Detrick potentially exposing them to the coronavirus.

Like the parents of hundreds of thousands of San Antonio students, Harris is grappling with how to make the right choice for Detrick’s education. They are weighing the risks of their children contracting the virus with the academic and social benefits of being in a classroom. For some, fears about their children getting seriously ill from the virus don’t square with medical experts’ findings, and for others, the chief concern is that their students will infect a vulnerable family member. Most say there is no easy answer and the barrage of information from their school, district, and elected officials only makes the matter more confusing.

In mid-March, coronavirus closed campuses, sending students home to continue their studies. Many families found solace in the belief that the situation was temporary, that the summer heat would snuff out the virus, and schools would open normally in the fall.

Instead, the number of coronavirus cases and related deaths rose, with July seeing more than 33,000 new cases in Bexar County.

Gov. Greg Abbott assured families that students would be safe to return to classrooms in the fall and the Texas Education Agency told districts they must offer in-person learning to receive State funding. Local districts announced they would offer both face-to-face and distance learning, leaving parents to make the choice.

Neither option is without its drawbacks, but families must decide how their students will learn before the fall semester starts. As the first day of school nears for most school districts in San Antonio, the pressure to decide is building.

An essential worker’s dilemma

At first, Deanna Estrada was excited about sending her kids back to school. She’s the mother of two teenagers enrolled at Lanier High School and works as a health care provider, caring for three clients in their homes.

It would be daughter Vanessa’s first year at the high school and she was eager to get involved in athletics and extracurricular activities. Victoria is starting her junior year.

Even though Estrada wears a mask at work and follows disinfecting protocols, she worries that because she rides public transit and two of her clients still leave their homes, she could contract the virus and infect her daughters.

As Estrada watched the coronavirus case numbers rising in July, she became more sure that keeping them home was the right answer.

“As time went on, I saw the death tolls and I totally changed my mind,” Estrada said. “I told them there was no way I could consciously send them to school. I don’t want to have that on my conscience that they would get sick or even could die from this.

“Being an essential worker, I’m already risking them getting the virus myself. I don’t want to double that by having them in school.”

Missing friends

Even though Jessica Elkin has decided to send her three kids back to school in Northside ISD when in-person instruction resumes, the choice is fraught with uncertainty.

Elkin has two children who will attend Steubing Elementary, where she participates in the PTA and tutors students two days a week. She knows the teachers, parents, and her kids’ classmates well.

The Elkin family (from left) Josh, Hayden, 9, Emma, 6, Shelby, 11, and Jessica. Credit: Courtesy / Elkin Family

Wrestling with what to do about the new school year, Elkin called Steubing’s principal for more details on what in-person instruction would actually look like. She asked about the number of kids in each classroom. From her own research, she learned that small groups are essential to maintaining safe social distancing.

During the spring and summer, Elkin and her husband debated the options. It became exhausting to talk about, she said. Ultimately, the two decided to start the year off by sending their kids to campus.

“My children are so desperate to see their friends. They love school and talk about how much they miss their teachers,” Elkin said. “If we can send them back, I’d like to try and do it. But, I told my kids, it has to be safe.”

Northside ISD sent out a survey to parents at the beginning of August, asking them to commit to at-home or in-person learning for the first nine-week grading period. Elkin plans to call school leaders after the surveys are in and class sizes set. If she feels the classes are too large, Elkin said she’ll likely change her mind.

But even if they aren’t, worries will persist.

“What are they going to do once they get around their friends?” Elkin wondered. “I think about their masks and what if they take it off at lunchtime and then it gets mixed up and they put someone else’s on?”

Elkin acknowledged that she won’t ever be entirely sure she made the right decision for her family. And if she gets a bad feeling about her kids being on campus, she plans to bring them back home for online schooling.

“I’m conflicted. I’m optimistic.”

Sulema Mendoza can’t risk her 10-year-old daughter Sasha bringing the coronavirus home from school.

The single mom of two – her older son Xavier is 19 and graduating from Harlan High School this summer – has high blood pressure, putting her at higher risk.

“I’m not as concerned [about Sasha],” Mendoza said. “She’s resilient. But if it gets to me, that’s my concern – my health. I’m a single parent. If something happens to me and I don’t recover or I take longer to recover, that becomes an issue with work, responsibility, and whatnot.”

Sasha starts fourth grade next week at IDEA Carver. Mendoza, a community health worker, is leaning toward keeping her at home but has “mixed emotions.” Not seeing her friends and staying mostly at home this summer has been tough on Sasha, Mendoza said. It’s been hard on everyone. Mendoza had to give up coaching youth basketball and playing in an adult league herself during the pandemic. But she still worries about the coronavirus.

“I’m conflicted, I’m optimistic,” Mendoza said. “Of course at some point I’m ready to move forward and beyond this, but it’s just going through the motions.”

“They will touch everything”

Fears that her young daughters won’t understand or comply with new safety rules run through Ruby Hernandez’s mind when she thinks about sending her kids to school.

(From left) Robert Estrada, twins Amethyst and Obsidian, 4, and Ruby Hernandez. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Hernandez recently moved back to the community in Harlandale ISD where she grew up after living on the Northeast Side of San Antonio. Her oldest daughter grew up going to Harlandale schools, and Hernandez wanted the same for her youngest kids, 4-year-old twins.

But when coronavirus began spreading, she feared it wasn’t worth it to have her daughters start prekindergarten in the middle of a pandemic. This year, Hernandez’s twins won’t enroll in Harlandale.

“My kids are 4. They don’t have the capacity to understand they can’t put their hands in their eyes or nose or mouth,” she said. “They will touch everything, so my fear is they get COVID. My husband is asthmatic. His family has a history of diabetes and obesity and heart issues.”

It was a hard decision for Hernandez to make, and she hopes that next year she’ll be able to walk her daughters down the hall of Wright Elementary. For now, she’ll keep them at home and work with family and friends who are teachers to provide some fundamental instruction.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.