With COVID-19 numbers once again on the rise due to the highly contagious delta variant, parents whose kids are heading back to school understandably have a lot of questions surrounding the safety of their children and families.

While children who become infected with COVID-19 tend to show fewer symptoms (if any at all), health officials are still urging parents to take precautions against the virus.

Children can spread the virus as asymptomatic carriers, said University Health pediatrician Dr. Teresa Ruiz. Ruiz added she’s seen a lot of parents come to her very concerned about their child’s return to the classroom this fall.

“Based on the data that we know, [children] are not as likely to get seriously ill with [COVID-19], but some children have gotten very ill,” Ruiz said. “No parent wants their child to have that risk. So we want to do as much as we can to minimize it.”

Here’s what San Antonio parents need to know as kids head back to classrooms over the next few weeks.

Why is the delta variant causing the new wave?

The delta variant is a highly transmittable strain of the COVID-19 virus that originated out of India in December. It’s about twice as contagious as the alpha variant that came out of the U.K. last fall, and is exponentially more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus strain. Local officials say the delta variant is now responsible for roughly 88 percent of current COVID-19 cases in Bexar County.

Read our explainer on the delta variant and its risks here.

Will getting vaccinated and/or mask wearing be mandatory for students or staff at my child’s school?

No school district in Texas is permitted to mandate COVID-19 vaccination or mask-wearing for their staff or students under the executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May. On Thursday, the governor doubled down on that order, further limiting local governments’ ability to enact mask requirements, capacity limits, or vaccine mandates.

That means no public governmental entities within the state, including school districts, can mandate masks. Multiple San Antonio school districts, including Northside ISD, North East ISD, Southside ISD, South San ISD, and San Antonio ISD, confirmed they are not mandating masks in classrooms for teachers or students.

Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order opening Texas 100% and rescinding mandatory mask rules will go into effect Wednesday.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders mean that schools, along with other government entities, may not mandate masking. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio ISD will ask all students to wear masks in class and on buses, but will offer an opt-out option. Parents can opt their child out by signing a district-issued waiver during the first week of school.

Earlier this week, the Texas State Teachers Association, a branch of the National Education Association, sent Abbott a letter asking him to reverse the order and allow school districts to mandate masks.

Abbot responded via Twitter, stating that “the time for government mask mandates is over,” and “now is the time for personal responsibility.”

“Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks,” Abbott said.

Should my child wear a mask?

Earlier this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance, recommending all people, including vaccinated individuals, wear a mask when in indoor public spaces.

Children should wear masks while in the classroom or when in public indoor spaces, Ruiz said. Wearing a mask over one’s nose and mouth makes the person less likely to spread the virus because it keeps spit particles from dispersing when the wearer coughs, sneezes, or even talks, Ruiz said.

“For children who are not eligible to get a vaccine, they have to make sure they’re doing as much of everything else as possible,” Ruiz said. “Wearing a mask will … decrease the transmission away from their body.”

How can I protect my child from COVID-19?

Children 12 and up are eligible for vaccination, and Ruiz recommends eligible kids get the jab.

While there have been some reports of children experiencing serious side effects from the vaccine — such as inflammation of the heart — these cases are extremely rare, so parents have to weigh the risks of their child getting COVID-19 to the risks of getting vaccinated, Ruiz said.

“Deaths from children getting COVID-19 is not unheard of,” Ruiz said. “But vaccination has not been proven to cause deaths.”

The best thing parents and family members can do is “cocoon” children who are under the age of 12 by getting vaccinated themselves, Ruiz said. By getting vaccinated, and following the latest CDC guidance on masking in indoor public spaces, people are less likely to transmit the disease to family members, including those who can’t get vaccinated, she said. Family members with children should continue to wash their hands frequently and should encourage their kids to do the same, Ruiz said.

Pfizer has recently expanded its vaccine trials to include 5- to 11-year-olds, and anticipates emergency FDA approval as soon as September.

Are public schools still offering online-only class options?

At this time, no local districts will offer remote learning as an option, because Texas lawmakers failed to pass a bill to fund virtual education in schools during the legislative session. House Bill 1468, which was strongly supported by both Democrats and Republicans, died after House Democrats walked off the floor to block the passage of a controversial voting bill.

“Without this funding, we can only offer in-person instruction,” North East ISD Superintendent Sean Maika said in a letter sent to parents last week.

Students will no longer be able to take hybrid classes since the state will not receive funding to support remote learning.
Students will no longer be able to take online-only classes since schools will not receive state funding to support remote learning. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Officials from Northside ISD, North East ISD, Southside ISD, South San ISD, and San Antonio ISD, all confirmed they will not be offering an online-only option this school year. Edgewood ISD‘s website states it will not offer virtual learning this year either.

Parents with children in Judson ISD, Harlandale ISD, Alamo Heights ISD, East Central ISD, or South West ISD should contact their district office directly for more information.

What protocols are schools taking against COVID-19?

Most school districts in San Antonio will be implementing protocols similar to the ones they had during this last academic school year.

“You know, I hate to say same old, but it’s the same old,” South San’s public relations consultant Brad Domitrovich said.

Schools will be keeping students’ desks apart, asking staff and students to wear masks, encouraging students to frequently wash their hands, and asking students who feel sick or test positive for COVID-19 to stay home for 10 days. If a student must stay home, he or she will need to work with their teacher to make up any classwork.

Parents will be notified if a student in their child’s classroom tests positive for COVID-19, North East ISD officials said Monday — a reversal from what Maika wrote in his open letter. San Antonio ISD will also do contact tracing and alert parents if their child was possibly exposed to COVID-19, school officials said during a town hall Thursday.

Read more about North East ISD’s 2021-22 protocols here. Watch San Antonio ISD’s COVID-19 informational town hall video here. Northside ISD is finalizing its exact protocols for the new year, said Barry Perez, executive director of communications, but parents can expect a notice soon.

Parents with children in Judson ISD, Harlandale ISD, Alamo Heights ISD, East Central ISD, or South West ISD should contact their district office directly for more information.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the general assignment reporter for the San Antonio Report.