Five-year-old Monserrat Brandt spent several minutes Monday afternoon writhing away from her parents as they tried to administer a free coronavirus test at the Pre-K 4 SA Westside Education Center.

After watching another young girl swab her nose, Monserrat let her father, Guillermo Brandt, help her swab her own little nose, quickly relaxing into a smile.

The Brandts took Monserrat to the Pre-K 4 SA center Monday so all three could get tested as part of a free, family testing day offered by Community Labs, a San Antonio nonprofit that provides coronavirus testing for schools and businesses. Students, family members and staff had the chance to get tested amid an omicron-fueled spike in coronavirus cases.

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District reported 3,894 cases Monday and a 7-day moving average of 2,055 cases, a 683% spike since the last time local health officials updated COVID-19 statistics Dec. 22. The 7-day average was 301 cases before the holidays.

Arlette Brandt said the family couldn’t find anywhere to get tested, so they were grateful that Pre-K 4 SA and Community Labs held the event Monday afternoon. Although no one in the family has been exposed to the virus to their knowledge, “we wanted to know. We’re really concerned because we want to be safe,” Guillermo Brandt said.

Guillermo Brandt encourages his daughter, Monserrat, to complete a nasal swab during a Pre-K 4 SA coronavirus testing day on Monday.
Guillermo Brandt encourages his daughter, Monserrat, to complete a nasal swab Monday during a Pre-K 4 SA coronavirus testing day. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Most San Antonio school districts will reopen classrooms this week after a two-week winter break. Many superintendents sent out messages to families over the weekend, reminding them of their COVID-19 safety precautions and encouraging people to get vaccinated if they haven’t.

San Antonio’s two largest districts — Northside and North East independent school districts — welcomed back students Monday. Neither district currently requires students and staff to wear masks, but both strongly encourage them. They also offer coronavirus testing at certain locations.

Both Northside and North East ISD reported a large number of staff absences Monday, which is not uncommon the day after a holiday break — but not at the levels seen Monday.

North East ISD had about 700 staff absences, including some vacant positions. Almost 400 teachers stated they were absent because of a personal or family illness, district spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said. NEISD has more than 8,500 full-time employees.

In Northside ISD, about 1,260 staff members were absent Monday, including 926 teachers who needed a substitute to cover for them, said district spokesman Barry Perez. The district typically is able to fill roughly 85% of positions that require substitutes, but it could only fill 58% of those positions Monday. The district employs more than 13,000 people.

While public schools must remain open to receive state funding, private schools have more leeway. Central Catholic High School, which serves about 530 boys, announced last week that it would delay the start of the spring semester until Wednesday. Students would have returned to the private college preparatory school Monday, but school officials decided to hold off on welcoming back students after hearing numerous reports of people testing positive for the coronavirus, said interim President Jason Longoria. Central Catholic leaders will reevaluate Tuesday whether to return to school or hold classes virtually.

Community Labs provides weekly testing for students and staff at the four Pre-K 4 SA centers and at some campuses in 11 San Antonio school districts, including Northside, San Antonio, Judson, Southwest, Harlandale, South San Antonio and Edgewood ISDs. The nonprofit decided to offer testing at the Pre-K 4 SA Westside Education Center on Monday because many families want to know if anyone has been exposed when testing is scarce and the highly contagious omicron variant is driving up case numbers, CEO Sal Webber said.

Families line up outside of a Pre-K 4 SA coronavirus testing day on Monday.
Families line up for coronavirus testing Monday at the Pre-K 4 SA Westside Education Center. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

With an average turnaround time of 12 hours, Community Labs can conduct 40,000 tests per day, Webber said. The nonprofit, which launched in 2020, has been working to ramp up testing, knowing another winter surge was on the horizon.

“We’ve been prepping for this game since the beginning, and we’re ready to help out in any way we can,” he said.

Webber said Community Labs noticed more families signing up their students for the weekly testing in December before school dismissed for winter break. The nonprofit saw the positivity rate among those it tests increase before Thanksgiving, likely when omicron arrived in San Antonio, he said.

“After talking with school officials, we definitely see registrations going up for kids who want to be tested when they come back to school,” Webber said. “We’re ready for that extra volume.”

The family testing day came at the right time for Marc Venegas, who brought his 4-year-old and 6-year-old daughters to get tested Monday at the Pre-K 4 SA center. The father of three said he couldn’t find anywhere else to get tested, and his whole household has been hit by the omicron variant. Venegas’ wife and son both tested positive last week, so he wanted to get himself and his daughters tested, even though they’re not showing symptoms.

“We’re the last ones standing,” he said.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.