This article has been updated.

As coronavirus cases continue to climb in San Antonio, school district officials say they are aiming to strike a balance between keeping students and staff safe and preventing critical learning loss for students.

In the Northside Independent School District, San Antonio’s largest, that means urging families to consider keeping their students learning remotely at home and switching to virtual instruction for those attending school in person, Superintendent Brian Woods said in a letter to families Wednesday. He asked students to consider staying home through the end of January.

But teachers must still go to work in person. While they, too, worry about their students’ educational success, they say the COVID-19 precautions in place are insufficient to stop the virus from seeping into their classrooms from the community.

“It has been a very delicate balancing act between trying to meet the safety needs of staff and students and trying to meet the emotional and the instructional needs of students,” district spokesman Barry Perez said. “We’re never going to please every stakeholder. We’re doing everything that we can to try to mitigate those concerns and try to provide safety measures and protocols that will help mitigate those concerns.”

Woods acknowledged that not all students can learn from home and that he could only request that families make the change because the state requires public school districts to offer in-person instruction. He also wrote in the letter that devices are available for any students who need one through their campuses.

“Hopefully, this will help us get past the surge in cases we are now seeing in our city,” he wrote in the letter. “We all need to do our part to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and yet balance that with the imperative to provide high-quality education to the children of our community.”

Northside ISD began requiring teachers to return to their classrooms or apply for leave after the first nine weeks of school as more students started opting for in-person instruction, Director of Benefits Leticia Ramirez said. To qualify for remote work, teachers had to submit documentation that they had certain underlying medical conditions that put them more at risk for contracting COVID-19.

Some teachers with chronic medical conditions have taken unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Others returned because they could not afford to lose their source of income.

Northside teacher Alexandra Marquez said she has seen more colleagues and students test positive for COVID-19 since she returned to work after winter break Jan. 4, and she is concerned that she will fall ill any day now.

Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 3, Northside ISD reported that 247 staff members and 178 students had tested positive for COVID-19, according to its website. Comparatively, the district reported 72 students and 37 staff members tested positive the week before Thanksgiving, according to the Department of State Health Services.

“It feels like the gates are closing on me, and I’m not quite through that doorway,” Marquez said. “It’s a feeling of impending doom.”

Jean Hoffheimer, another Northside teacher, said she worries whether the students who returned to the classroom after winter break followed precautions, such as wearing a mask and not gathering in large groups, while they weren’t in school.

“We’re all really afraid that we’re going to lose a colleague or a student,” she said. “The precautions are not going to eliminate the increased spread.”

About 46% of Northside’s 103,000 students are learning in person right now, Perez said. Marquez said she had anticipated that more families would keep their children at home after the break “out of an abundance of caution,” but she has not seen a change in attendance.

“Basically, it just feels like we’re back in business,” she said.

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.

Hoffheimer said NISD is not keeping students in pods of six, like Metro Health recommends, so it’s difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from students while trying to help them learn in person. Moreover, she said, district officials have expressed concern about student learning loss but have not addressed teachers’ anxieties about feeling unsafe at school.

“All students in America are suffering. They’re all going to experience learning loss,” Hoffheimer said. “We can’t really overcome critical learning loss if we’re dead.”

Marquez wants NISD officials to be more transparent about the steps the district is taking to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and about who has been exposed to someone who has tested positive. She said parents have told her when students tested positive, but she never heard from her campus leaders that she had been exposed.

Another issue is a lack of substitute teachers. As a co-teacher, Marquez said if she requests a substitute for herself, her campus does not fulfill the request.

“Our substitutes are already so strained in having to fill vacancies of teachers,” she said. “The district is maximizing as many subs as they have.”

NISD currently has 1,951 active substitutes, Perez said. That number is down about 20% from the same time last year. The district is unable to fill substitute teacher requests on average about 8% of the time, and when that happens, campus leaders must figure out how to cover classes if they cannot find a substitute.

In addition to a decrease in available substitutes, NISD currently has 99 teacher vacancies, Perez said. The district did not have data on the number of teacher vacancies at the same time last year available Monday. NISD has 7,156 teachers.

The staffing problem is not unique to Northside. School systems across the country have had to close their buildings and pivot to remote-only learning because so many teachers were either sick with COVID-19 or quarantining, and not enough substitutes were available to fill in the gaps, The Atlantic reported.

Overall, Marquez believes NISD could be doing more to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the community, such as increasing the frequency of cleaning school facilities, providing more face masks for students and staff, and conducting contact tracing more thoroughly.

“How the district chooses to mitigate the spread of COVID, how it chooses to respond to the rising cases here in San Antonio doesn’t just affect the employees or the students, it affects everybody in the community, especially those multigenerational households,” she said. “Students’ and teachers’ safety goes hand-in-hand with the health of everybody here in San Antonio.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.