A door on Alamo Heights High School displays a sign that states masks are required. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Alamo Heights Independent School District plans to welcome 3,200 students back to its five campuses on Sept. 21 despite local guidance to limit in-person teaching until Bexar County’s positive COVID-19 testing rate falls below 5 percent.

The return of 67 percent of the small district’s student population – those whose parents have asked that they return to campus – could result in as many as 25 students per classroom on the high school campus instead of the six recommended by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

Alamo Heights ISD’s plan is in contrast to those of other Bexar County school districts. After Labor Day, Northside ISD plans to bring back English learners and students in specialized settings, including those served in autism units or behavior units across the district. The area’s largest district has not yet determined a timeline for the next phases of its reopening plan.

San Antonio ISD will bring back 10 percent of students at most on the Tuesday after Labor Day and then another 10 percent two weeks after if public health data continues trending in a positive direction.

Immediately after the holiday weekend, Alamo Heights ISD is limiting on-campus students to those who need more instructional help – early learners and students in transitional years – but that phase will be short-lived. Its plan for the broader reopening is set to kick in Sept. 21.

“We understand that Alamo Heights planned its phases in anticipation of being in the Green [low-risk] Zone in 3 weeks, and that plans will be pulled back if we do not see that progress,” Metro Health Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo said last week. “It is so important for our community to keep up everyday measures like distancing, masking, and hand hygiene so that we don’t experience yo-yo opening and closings at schools.”

In recent weeks, coronavirus warning indicators have trended in a positive direction. Consequently, Metro Health officials have lowered the overall risk indicator for the county to safe/moderate. 

However, they cautioned schools against a full reopening of campuses, keeping the risk indicator for in-person instruction at the high end of the yellow “moderate” zone on a scale of red to green. Until the COVID-19 positivity rate among Bexar County residents falls to 5 percent or lower, the area will stay yellow. The positivity rate was 7.8 percent for the week of Aug. 23-29, the most recent number available.

In the current risk zone, health officials said, in-person instruction should prioritize special-needs students, at-risk students, and those who lack access to remote-learning resources. Schools should limit on-campus capacity to 25 percent of normal and six students per classroom.

Woo said Metro Health’s directive is a recommendation and not a mandate.

“Metro Health’s strong recommendation is to limit in-person instruction to fixed pods of 6 children, and building and room occupancy to 25% while we remain in the Yellow Zone,” Woo said. “We can only recommend, not mandate.”

Alamo Heights ISD developed its phased-in reopening plan after reviewing the larger regional health metrics and local health data for the surrounding area, said Frank Alfaro, AHISD’s assistant superintendent for administrative services. A panel of AHISD staff and community members reviewed the number of cases in the zip codes surrounding the school district and the number of cases among staff and students.

The 78209 zip code, which has a population of close to 42,500 people and encompasses the city of Alamo Heights and surrounding areas, has had 447 cumulative cases of COVID-19, which equates to 1,053 cases per 100,000, according to Metro Health data as of Sunday.

“When you put all of that stuff together, we feel like there’s a community metric that’s broader than the narrow metric that you look at [in the yellow zone],” Alfaro said. “We’ve taken the recommendations from Metro Health broadly. The specifics aren’t necessarily the point so much as to say we’ve got the message, we’ve got our community panel, we’ve got those metrics, we’ve got all metrics, and we’re looking at the community at large. That’s largely in the green at this point.”

While the majority of Alamo Heights area families want to send their kids back to campus, some parents are expressing concern over a plan that will bring a substantial number of students into classrooms within two weeks.

“In July, [Superintendent Dana] Bashara told parents that AHISD would follow Metro Health guidelines yet 67% of students will return to campuses within the next three weeks,” said parent Kelly Lipkin, calling the situation a massive disappointment. “Employees and students deserve administrators that prioritize health during a pandemic above all else. When they decide to deviate from the guidance of our local health experts, I would expect that they honestly convey their rationale and intent to do so.”

Dana Bashara, Alamo Heights Independent School District superintendent (center). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As of last Wednesday, Alfaro said the district had not specifically discussed the reopening plan with Metro Health. 

The plan will first focus on young students and those in transitional years. During the week of Sept. 8, AHISD will bring those in pre-K through third grade and students in sixth and ninth grades back to campus on alternating days. Campus officials will split each grade in half, with the first half of the alphabet coming to campus on Tuesday and Wednesday and the latter half on Thursday and Friday. 

The smaller numbers will allow the district to train groups of students on health and safety protocols and allow them to acclimate to a changed campus environment, Alfaro said.

All the students in those grades will come to school for the full week starting Sept. 14 as students in the other grades begin their phased-in return. After two weeks, all who want to learn in person will be allowed to do so.

At a school board meeting on Aug. 27, several educators told trustees they worried that with so many students coming to campus at the same time, it would necessitate more than six students in each classroom, making it difficult to social distance properly. Alfaro confirmed that Alamo Heights High School’s classes could have as many as 25 students at one time.

Jimmie Walker, AHISD’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, added that the district is seeking creative solutions to reduce the number of students in one classroom at a time, including using outdoor spaces or dividing classes between a teacher and their assistant. AHISD brought tents to campuses to allow outdoor learning.

“[We’re] trying to have conversations with individual grade levels, individual teachers about getting creative” in the event classrooms have too many students, she said.

Both Walker and Alfaro emphasized the need for a layered approach to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19. The district will implement policies related to mask wearing, hygiene protocols, and social distancing.

“Wearing the mask is the first kind of layer of protection whether you’re 6 feet away or not, wearing the mask is the first layer,” Alfaro said. “The second layer is the distance. So if you can wear the mask and maintain 6 feet, that’s great. If you can’t maintain, then you have the mask.”

Labor Day has created uncertainty for all school leaders planning for future weeks. Some worry the holiday could produce a spike in hospitalizations, deaths, and coronavirus cases similar to those seen after Memorial Day and July Fourth. Consequently, school systems have cautioned their families to take proactive measures.

If a spike does occur, AHISD could revisit its reopening plan, Alfaro said.

“If we as a community we head back into the red, we’ve got to revisit,” he said. “We’ve all got to stay vigilant all the way through Labor Day and forward to make sure that it trends in the right direction.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.