Fifth-grader Samuel Martinez did not want to be stuck at home again this school year. He didn’t feel like he learned much staring a computer screen all day last school year. Plus, it was boring.

“I’m excited to learn this year,” he said Monday, the first day of school in the San Antonio Independent School District. “I’m also excited that I already made a friend.”

Samuel gestured toward his neighbor, Jeremiah Navarro, at his table in Miguel Rodriguez’s classroom at Democracy Prep at the Stewart Campus. The two met last week at a back-to-school event on campus.

Most of the other students at Democracy Prep appeared to be just as excited as Samuel to be back in a school building with all the other students, excluding a few pre-K and kindergarten students who could be heard sobbing — somewhat muffled through their masks — as their parents dropped them off at the front entrance.

The school did not allow parents inside unless they still needed to register their children. Other coronavirus-related precautions included fist bumps between educators and students as opposed to hugs or handshakes, squirts of hand sanitizer into every student’s hand upon entering the building, and face masks available to any student who wanted one. Most students already were wearing masks.

But by all other appearances, it was a typical first day of school — but something not experienced since 2019.

A line of cars snaked out onto the road as parents waited to drop off their kids. Some walked their students to the entrance, where they hugged and quickly departed. School staff directed the kids to their assigned classrooms, and students and teachers excitedly greeted each other.

SAISD started last school year with virtual instruction for all students for the first three weeks of school, then gradually began allowing students to come in person. Democracy Prep Principal Virginia Boyce said the school ended last school year with close to 70% of students in person. SAISD is not offering virtual instruction this school year because the state will not fund it.

But this year, schools cannot enforce many of the COVID-19 protocols they had in place to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Districts cannot require students or staff to wear masks, nor can they mandate COVID-19 vaccinations under Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order. Only children 12 and older are eligible for one of the coronavirus vaccines. Schools also do not have to notify school staff or families if a child or staffer tests positive for COVID-19. Only local and state officials must be notified.

However, Boyce said Democracy Prep will continue to notify families of a positive COVID-19 case in their children’s classrooms. Campus staff also will model mask-wearing and encourage students and families to get vaccinated. The principal said staff would prioritize communication with families to help them feel secure about sending their kids back to school in person.

“I think that the bottom line, in my conversations with families right now is, ‘I hear you,'” Boyce said of parents’ concerns. “We also know without a doubt that kids need to be back. They really benefit in so many ways from school. I hope everyone has taken away the importance of an educational environment from this whole pandemic. And kids are just happy to be back in general.”

Democracy Prep Principal Virginia Boyce leads students to their new classroom on the first day of school.
Democracy Prep Principal Virginia Boyce leads students to their new classroom on the first day of school. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Rodriguez, a fifth grade bilingual teacher, is glad to have his students back in the classroom. He said he was concerned about students’ emotional wellbeing last year more than anything, especially students who need special education services. He saw students struggling but could do little to help at the time.

“I felt like my hands were tied,” he said. “I could see in their faces that they were perhaps depressed or sad.”

While Rodriguez is concerned about the growing number of COVID-19 cases in San Antonio, he believes having his students back in person is for the best as long as precautions are taken to protect everyone from the virus.

“They were eager to come back,” he said. “They needed it as much as we teachers because I’ve always seen [teaching] as we feed off each other’s energy.”

Fifth-grade bilingual teacher Miguel Rodriguez checks on students work on the first day of school at Democracy Prep.
Fifth-grade bilingual teacher Miguel Rodriguez checks on students’ work on the first day of school at Democracy Prep. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Rodriguez wants to address students’ emotion wellbeing and help them improve academically, while also educating them and establishing an international club at the school. But he knows students’ emotional needs must be met first.

For students Angelique Martinez and Brandy Villanueva, the first day back in school after months of virtual instruction made them slightly nervous but excited about learning again and seeing their friends and teacher. Angelique said she is most excited about math and writing. She enjoys writing short stories and in a journal. Brandy is looking forward to math because she loves solving equations. Both are excited to make new friends.

“I’m looking forward to becoming successful, that I become something that I want my parents to be happy about because they have done a lot for me,” Brandy said.

Similarly, Samuel wants to become successful, too, and eventually help his father, who does construction work. He wants to start his own company, and he knows school will help him accomplish that. He pointed to the sign near the classroom door with Democracy’s Prep logo “Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!”

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Brooke Crum

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