Harlandale Independent School District Superintendent Gerardo Soto on Tuesday urged families of students receiving in-person instruction to switch to virtual learning until Feb. 8 as coronavirus cases continue to rise in San Antonio.

Soto’s letter calling for the switch comes almost a week after Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods made a similar request for families in Bexar County’s largest school district. San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said at Tuesday’s board meeting that he told families in December that the district would not allow more students to attend school in person until COVID-19 cases began to decline.

Bexar County COVID-19 hospitalizations reached an all-time high Monday, with 1,520 patients receiving treatment. Almost 38% of all local hospital patients have the disease.

“Families can transition to virtual instruction and return to in-person without fear of losing their slot,” Soto wrote in his letter.

HISD also announced Tuesday that free, weekly COVID-19 testing will be available on all campuses for students and staff, starting Jan. 26, through a partnership with local nonprofit Community Labs. Students must have parental or guardian permission to get tested.

Judson ISD also announced Tuesday that it will begin providing free, weekly testing through Community Labs this week on all 30 campuses for all staff and students, whether they’re attending in person or virtually, according to a press release. Results from the self-administered tests typically come back within 24 hours.

Community Labs provides testing to several San Antonio school districts, reaching more than 200 campuses a week, the press release states.

About 50% of HISD’s roughly 12,500 students are attending school in person right now, Soto said in an interview Tuesday. The district had planned to bring more students in person after winter break, but Soto sent another letter to families over the break, telling them HISD would refrain from allowing more students to attend school in person until cases began to decline.

“This is a time when San Antonio is in a pretty bad place with the pandemic,” he said. “We’re just encouraging, as other districts did, those families that are able to have their children be remote learners for the meantime to go ahead and reset for a while.”

Soto added that schools would remain open to students who cannot learn from home for whatever reason, but he’s concerned about staff being exposed to COVID-19 because then they have to quarantine.

“That puts a big strain on our subs,” he said. “Now there’s a shortage of subs, and we don’t have our teachers teaching our kids.”

Additionally, HISD staff that must quarantine can use federally mandated paid sick leave, but that federal provision under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired Dec. 31. Like other local districts, HISD extended the provision but limited the paid sick leave to workers who had not used the federally required 10 days of sick time.

The Bexar County COVID-19 school risk indicator has been in the “red” zone or high-risk zone since early December. In the red zone, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District recommends families keep their students at home to learn virtually, except for those who are special education students, are struggling with virtual learning, or lack access to the internet and other resources. Metro Health also recommends keeping students in pods of up to six students and canceling on-campus extracurricular activities.

On Tuesday, Metro Health reported 2,164 COVID-19 cases among staff and students in Bexar County schools, including 1,441 students who tested positive.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.