Amid a growing number of coronavirus cases, a survey shows NISD parents prefer to keep their children at home when the upcoming school year starts. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

About two-thirds of Northside Independent School District parents said they plan to keep their kids home when school starts, district officials reported at a Tuesday night school board meeting. When asked the same question at the beginning of June, 38 percent of parents said the same.

San Antonio’s largest school district polled parents and staff on their feelings toward school reopening. The results showed close to three-quarters of both groups were very concerned about COVID-19 impacting their health or the health of someone in their household. These concerns had grown significantly since the district surveyed parents at the beginning of June.

There’s a likely reason for the heightened concerns, said Brenda Ward, NISD’s executive director of assessment, accountability, and continuous improvement.

On the first day the district conducted its June survey, the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases reported by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District was 57.4. At the start of the July survey, the seven-day average was 730.1.

The increase in positive coronavirus cases may have also resulted in more parents supporting virtual-only instruction when school restarts. Of the 44,000 parents who responded to the NISD poll in July, 61 percent said they believe school should be online only. NISD staff expressed a similar opinion, with 59 percent in agreement.

“I’m not surprised at all by what we’re seeing,” Northside ISD trustee M’Lissa Chumbley said at Tuesday night’s board meeting. “… It really seems like our parents are driving that they really want us to beef up and have that distance learning program.”

A Northside ISD poll shows nearly two-thirds of parents plan to keep their children home when school starts. Credit: Courtesy / NISD

Two weeks ago, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) issued guidance that mandates districts offer in-person learning to students. For elementary and middle school students, on-campus instruction must be available five days a week. Districts can offer high school students a hybrid in-person/virtual model, with students assigned to on-campus shifts per day or alternating days to maximize social distancing.

The district did not poll parents on their support for hybrid learning at any level because the state didn’t allow such blended instruction at the time of the NISD surveys.

The agency did not require districts to also offer remote learning, but it did outline ways in which it could be done. Local districts have announced plans to offer both options and allow families to choose which learning model their student prefers.

Northside students interested in on-campus learning will have to follow stricter health and safety protocols, and the majority of parents support this, the July survey data showed.

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Roughly 90 percent of parents and teachers were in favor of mask requirements for students and teachers. Ward noted that this support was up significantly from June, when 62 percent of parents and staff were in favor.

In the time between the surveys, TEA officials announced that schools would have to comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s face covering requirement if it were still in place.

Northside’s first day of class is Aug. 24 and Superintendent Brian Woods already announced the school year will start with at least two weeks of remote instruction. In-person classes wouldn’t start until after Labor Day, at the earliest. The district plans to ask parents to choose how their students will learn next week.

TEA gives districts some flexibility for the first eight weeks of the school year. During that time period, districts can limit who, if anyone, is allowed onto campus for class. After that time, TEA expects districts to fully open up in-person instruction for anyone who wants it.

South San Antonio ISD’s board was the first in Bexar County to restrict on-campus activities for the full eight-week period.

As for South San’s plans beyond the eight weeks, “if we are still climbing [in cases] the way we do, we really need to make sure that we are doing what is right and safe,” said trustee Stacey Alderete, who has spoken at length about her experience contracting COVID-19.

In the 8,000-student South San district, there is even less support for in-person learning options.

At a board meeting last week, district staff told trustees that only 19.8 percent of parents wanted in-person learning. The remaining 80 percent were either undecided or in support of distance learning.

South San teachers agreed with their students’ parents. Less than 9 percent of district educators said they wanted to provide face-to-face instruction, with 50 percent preferring distance learning and 34 percent saying they would do whatever they were asked.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.