Public health leaders are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to consider restricting indoor gatherings, including at public schools.
Classrooms inside Eloise Japhet Elementary have protective measures in place such as restricted desks that allow students to be socially distant. Many schools remain half empty as some students choose to learn remotely while some choose to learn in person. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo urged parents to let their children learn from home, after the county’s COVID-19 risk indicator for schools hit the “red zone” Tuesday.

Woo also amended the COVID-19 directive for schools Tuesday to recommend that schools that offer in-person instruction test at least 25 percent of on-campus staff once a week and that extracurricular activities be canceled.

Additionally, Woo, other local doctors, and educators are working to recruit local leaders and organizations to sign a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, requesting he take steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 by reducing large indoor gatherings of people, including in schools, until the coronavirus is under control, according to a draft copy of the letter.

The health department reported 1,294 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, increasing the seven-day average to 1,113. That brings the county’s total to 89,490 COVID-19 cases.

Nine new deaths also were reported, bringing the local death toll to 1,406 people.

Local hospitals were treating 646 COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday, including 220 in intensive care, 114 on ventilators, and 29 people from El Paso, where the coronavirus has overwhelmed local health care systems. Hospitals admitted 96 new patients Tuesday.

“This is the most harrowing part of the pandemic to date,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a Tuesday COVID-19 briefing.

“There’s no doubt we’re seeing the effects of Thanksgiving,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff added. “This holiday is proving to be much, much more difficult, and now we’ll be running into Christmas right before you know it.”

The letter to the governor drafted by local doctors and a superintendent notes that the statewide COVID-19 positivity rate has increased to 15.7 percent as of Dec. 4, from 6.4 percent in late September. In Bexar County, weekly school cases have tripled from 42 to 127 since late September.

“We want our schools safely and consistently open,” the letter to the governor states. “However, we will not realize this unless COVID is under control. In Bexar County, we are seeing cases increase, and entire classes and athletic teams are forced to quarantine away from school. If our fears are realized, the return to school in January may be a very challenging one.”

The COVID-19 Community Response Coalition endorsed the letter, and as co-chair, Woo asked if others in the community would like to sign the letter or make any edits to include in the final version, said Michelle Vigil, a San Antonio Health Metropolitan Health District spokeswoman.

The letter concludes by requesting Abbott allow school districts to work with local health departments to make decisions based on their own situations, without risking the loss of state funding. Abbott and the Texas Education Agency have mandated that all school districts offer in-person instruction or lose state funding, which is largely based on student enrollment and attendance.

But superintendents from the county’s three largest districts have no intention of reducing the number of students attending school in person.

North East Independent School District Superintendent Sean Maika said the data shows that schools are one of the safest places for students.

“We have had approximately 55 percent of our students back for almost two months, and our safety protocols have proven to be effective,” he said. “The cases we are seeing in our district are occurring outside of school hours and are not spreading at school.”

Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, who is part of the COVID-19 Community Response Coalition, said the red zone for schools is a recommendation for parents who can help their children with virtual learning to consider keeping them home.

“The Metro Health recommendation does not mean that schools should close to in-person learning,” he said. “The fact is that in-person learning is, in most cases, serving our students in the best way possible.”

San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said he could not agree more. He welcomed Woo’s changes to the directive that increased school and classroom capacity for the “yellow zone” to 30 percent from 25 percent. About 30 percent of San Antonio ISD students are learning in person right now, he said.

“She made it clear in what she put out that this is a recommendation because she doesn’t have the authority to close schools and have us be affected in terms of our funding,” he said.

But in a Monday statement, a coalition of public school employees, students, parents, and community members called for Bexar County schools to maintain the original school guidelines.

“Given the increase in positive cases identified in our Bexar County area schools, we believe that an increase in face-to-face attendance over the currently recommended 25 percent threshold is unwise, unsafe, and unsupported by the existing scientific evidence,” the San Antonio Coalition on Reopening Schools said in the statement. “The proposal to increase the number of students permitted on campuses within the yellow zone is a reflection of political pressure, rather than of sound epidemiological reasoning.”

Martinez said he did not want the school district to have all students learning from home again because it doesn’t work for most students, including those with family support and access to the internet. SAISD also includes the highest-risk zip codes in the city in terms of COVID-19 positivity rates, which places another burden on the district with about 89 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged by the state.

“I think academic gaps are going to get wider, and what we’re trying to make sure in our district is that we minimize those gaps as much as possible because our children, in normal times, were already struggling because of issues of poverty and segregation,” he said. “Families are staying at home, and yet they’re still disproportionately being affected by COVID. In other words, it’s a double whammy. They’re not safe, and the children are missing out academically. It is just unfair.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.