SAISD plans to bring back 10 percent of the student population every two weeks – to a maximum of 50 percent – as long as the positivity rate is 5 percent or lower.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez estimated SAISD would need to spend between $3 million and $4 million on items such as face masks, shields, and enhanced HVAC filters. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez delivered what he described as promising news Monday night to his board: The coronavirus positivity rate was nearing a pivotal point that would allow more students to learn in person.

As of Monday, the positivity rate for coronavirus tests had fallen to 6 percent, down from 6.7 percent the week before, placing the city’s schools on the low end of the yellow zone for risk. This zone has public health officials recommending no more than 25 percent of students learning in school buildings. But if the rate continues to decline to 5 percent or below, Martinez said, more students soon could head back to campus.

“What we are seeing is it is getting safer,” Martinez said. “It is getting safer in the community.”

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, San Antonio ISD and other school districts around Bexar County brought back a limited number of students to the classroom.

SAISD was cautious in its reopening approach. While the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District told districts up to 25 percent of students were safe for an in-person return, SAISD brought back at most 10 percent at each campus. Next Monday, the district plans to bring back another 10 percent.

If health officials indicate the positivity rate is at or below 5 percent and area schools are in the green zone for risk, SAISD plans to continue phasing in an additional 10 percent of students every two weeks until the district capacity reaches 50 percent of kids.

Martinez said more families are asking for in-person instruction as the public health data trends in a positive direction. He projected that this trend would continue.

To help families and staff gain confidence in the safety measures of SAISD schools, Martinez said his district would begin publishing COVID-19 data for campuses by next week. The State already requires districts to report coronavirus cases to a common database that will begin publishing district-level data next week.

SAISD’s reporting mechanism will publish more detailed information about the number of people in quarantine and the number of people quarantined testing positive, the superintendent said.

Positive trends in public health data are changing reopening conditions for other school districts across the city. In Edgewood ISD, trustees initially approved a plan that would keep all students at home until October. That plan changed on Monday when the district began bringing students back to campuses earlier than expected.

Edgewood ISD prioritized students still learning English, those in special education classes, and those without a reliable internet connection at home. The district brought no more than 25 percent of students back to campus and plans to phase in all students choosing on-campus learning on Oct. 12.

This week, Northside ISD parents also reported their campuses inviting more students back to campus. The area’s largest school district is using a tiered system to prioritize who returns to campus first. The first tier of students invited to return for in-person classes on Sept. 8 included English learners and students in specialized settings, including those for students with autism.

The second tier, some of whom are being invited back to campus, include students deemed academically at-risk and the district’s youngest students in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade.

Anticipating such a positive trend in public health data, Alamo Heights ISD plans to bring all students who preferred in-person instruction back to campus by Sept. 21. On Sept. 8, the district began phasing in students with on-campus learning, prioritizing young students and those in transitional years.

Should AHISD’s plan proceed as expected, 67 percent of the district’s enrollment will be learning on campus by next Monday.

Other school districts in San Antonio could follow the other districts’ lead, but none announced changes Monday night. The impact of Labor Day weekend remains a looming uncertainty for many education leaders and public health officials. After Memorial Day and July Fourth, there were spikes in hospitalizations, deaths, and coronavirus cases. Fears that the same would follow the most recent holiday weekend prompted school leaders to caution families to stay home and not gather in large groups.

On Monday night, SAISD trustee Debra Guerrero asked Martinez what SAISD would do if Labor Day produced a similar spike and the risk of in-person instruction became greater.

“Of course if we did see an uptick, then of course we would pivot,” Martinez said.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.