Guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency on Wednesday allows school boards to determine mask requirements for their campuses. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio educators applauded the state government’s decision Wednesday to add teachers, school support staff, and child care workers to the list of those eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines, following a federal directive.

The announcement came on the heels of new guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency on Wednesday that allows school districts to maintain their mask requirements, leaving it to school boards to determine district policy. Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that the statewide mask order would expire March 10, which threw public schools into confusion for 24 hours.

Most San Antonio area school districts reported via social media Tuesday that they would continue to require students and staff to wear masks in school buildings. That included San Antonio, Judson, Edgewood, Southside, South San Antonio, Harlandale, Alamo Heights, North East, and Northside Independent School Districts.

Northside ISD spokesperson Barry Perez said Wednesday that Bexar County’s largest school district had no plans to change its COVID-19 safety protocols to exclude the use of face masks.

“We want parents and we want families to be comfortable in our schools,” he said. “We’re inviting them back to in-person learning, and if we’re going to do that, then we need to continue to create an environment on our campuses where they feel safe to have their children back.”

Vaccinating more teachers and staff will help maintain a safe environment on campus, Perez said. Through partnerships with vaccine providers, NISD has helped 2,500 staff members who qualified under previous guidelines get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Northside American Federation of Teachers lead organizer Melina Espiritu-Azocar said the teacher and support staff union members felt hopeful that President Joe Biden had “finally prioritized” educators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and school custodians in COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

“If schools are going to remain open, educators must be prioritized in this process,” she said. “It’s not just teachers. It’s all educators because it takes a village to truly ensure that schools stay open.”

On Twitter, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg praised the decision to prioritize educators, school support staff, and child care workers for COVID-19 vaccines.

Southside ISD, which will also continue to mandate masks, finished vaccinating staff members who qualified under earlier state guidelines Wednesday, Director of Public Relations Randy Escamilla said. The district worked with University Health and the district’s primary care clinic to administer the vaccines.

San Antonio ISD Communications Director Laura Short said the district “wholeheartedly” supports the state’s decision to add educators and school support staff to those eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines. SAISD also will continue to require students and staff to wear masks.

“We have advocated for school employees to be prioritized since vaccinations became available – they are essential to supporting our students and in opening the economy,” she said. “In SAISD, we have been working with health care providers to schedule employees according to the previous criteria, ensuring that all qualified teachers and support personnel had access. We believe the state’s new strategy will get all of our educators vaccinated even more expediently, and we welcome this decision.”

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who has led a national charge to get school staff vaccinated, said he was happy that Texas was finally adding teachers and other staff to the list of those eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. About 1,500 SAISD workers who qualified under the state’s previous guidelines have been vaccinated through the district’s partnership with University Health or on their own.

“This was a relief,” he said. “We have very rich data that shows our schools are safe, but in reality because of the zip codes we serve, it is essential that our staff get vaccinated because the risks are still very high.”

SAISD serves students in the San Antonio zip codes considered most at risk for contracting the coronavirus. Martinez said the state’s decision to prioritize school staff for COVID-19 vaccines would help the vaccine providers inoculate more educators. Some providers have held back doses for some educators but not enough for all school employees. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the vaccination supply would grow to meet demand with the approval of a third vaccine.

Boosting those efforts, University Health on Wednesday released details about a plan to prioritize school and child-care workers, including teachers, beginning with an allotment of vaccine doses that will arrive on March 22. Interested teachers and other school employees should inquire about getting vaccinated with their district office, a University Health spokeswoman said.

Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, said the past 24 hours have been “indicative of the way education workers” have felt for the past year, with ever-changing guidance from the state that has “little regard for” educators’ lives. She cited Abbott’s rescinding the mask order and state Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s requiring students to take state standardized tests this spring as examples.

“We are encouraged to see that the federal government has stepped in and it is going to push for educators to have access to this vaccine – something that the governor has not done,” Lopez said. “We also understand that being prioritized still means that there’s a road – a potentially shorter road but a road nonetheless – to getting everyone vaccinated.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.