San Antonio school districts reported more COVID-19 cases among students and staff last week than they did during the peak seen in the 2020-21 school year, according to data released Friday.

Between Aug. 23 and Aug. 29, 12 local school districts reported 1,596 coronavirus cases among students and staff, up from the 1,174 reported when school cases peaked in early January, according to data from the Department of State Health Services and area school districts. That is an increase of about 36%.

Last week was the first time all local school districts were back in session for the 2021-22 school year. Northside Independent School District, San Antonio’s largest with more than 100,000 students, started school Aug. 23, along with Somerset and Southwest ISDs.

Last school year, districts were able to require masks, but Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in July, banning mask mandates for public entities like school districts. Cities, counties, and schools are challenging Abbott's authority to prohibit mask mandates in court. In the meantime, many San Antonio school districts adopted temporary mask mandates. San Antonio ISD went a step further and is requiring all staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

But a few school districts have stopped enforcing their mask mandates after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Bexar County and the City of San Antonio cannot require people to wear masks inside governmental buildings and public schools. Those districts include Alamo Heights, East Central, North East, and Somerset ISDs.

An unvaccinated elementary school teacher in Marin County, California, who continued to work two days after having COVID-19 symptoms infected 12 students and 14 others with whom they came in contact, according to an August Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The teacher removed their mask to read aloud to students, despite the school requiring masks to be worn indoors. About 80% of the students who sat closest to the teacher's desk contracted the virus. They were all too young to get vaccinated.

"In addition to vaccination for eligible persons, strict adherence to nonpharmaceutical prevention strategies, including masking, routine testing, facility ventilation, and staying home when symptomatic, are important to ensure safe in-person learning in schools," the report states.

North East ISD Superintendent Sean Maika urged students and staff members to get vaccinated in a video posted on the district's social media platforms Friday. He said 409 students tested positive last week, up from 291 from the week before, and that most cases were among elementary students, who are not old enough to be vaccinated.

"Vaccines are playing a vital role in keeping our schools open," Maika said. "They are helping our teachers, staff, and students stay in the classroom and out of quarantine if they do not have any symptoms."

Data from the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District shows that most patients hospitalized because of COVID-19 complications — about 85% —are not vaccinated. Vaccines are not available for children under age 12.

Brooke Crum

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