San Antonio Independent School District leaders will ask the school board to approve delaying the first day of school by one week and beginning the new school year with three weeks of virtual instruction for all students.

At a press conference Tuesday, Superintendent Pedro Martinez outlined how the City’s major urban school district would begin the academic year. Martinez plans to ask SAISD trustees for approval next week to delay SAISD’s start date by a week, beginning class on Aug. 17.

Once classes resume, SAISD would provide all instruction online for the first three weeks, Martinez said. His announcement comes after a month of significant growth in confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in San Antonio and at a time when educators are pushing back on a statewide mandate to start classes in-person.

The decision to start the year virtually seems to be permissible under Texas Education Agency public health guidance released last week.

The guidance mandates that school districts must offer full-day in-person instruction for five days to any student who wants it, except during the first three weeks when districts can temporarily limit access to on-campus instruction.

Districts must still provide on-campus instruction to any student who does not have internet access or devices for distance learning. When campuses closed earlier this year, SAISD purchased devices for each student.

No in-person instruction would begin in SAISD until after Labor Day, although buildings will be open for food distribution and other necessary services, the superintendent said. While students remain at home, the district will conduct staff training on health and safety procedures that have yet to be released. SAISD will publish a 50-page document outlining the protocols sometime this week.

Once in-person instruction resumes, Martinez said he anticipates about 25 percent to 50 percent of the district’s families sending students to campus for class. A recent survey showed that just 31 percent of SAISD families wanted in-person instruction for their children. That’s a vast decrease from June, when 87 percent of families said they would send their students back to campus.

Martinez’s announcement comes on the same day the San Antonio Coalition on Schools Reopening, a group comprising educators from districts around the city, sent a letter to local and state authorities asking for instruction to be conducted remotely for at least the first nine weeks of the school year.

The group asks local health authorities to back them and keep schools closed or mandate remote learning until the region has adequate capacity for coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and tracking the outbreak.

Commenting about whether he would support a mandate for remote learning only in the first nine weeks, Martinez said he would like the flexibility to do so, but did not favor a mandate.

“We want to be sure that we always are sensitive to the inequities that exist in our community,” Martinez said. “Many of our children do not live in ideal living conditions. So for us to have a long-term remote plan, [it] does not work for our community. We need to be able to have the flexibility to be able to meet children’s needs and that includes both having a remote distance learning plan as well as in-person instruction.”

On Monday, SAISD board President Patti Radle joined board presidents from other large Texas school districts in writing a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking for more flexibility in starting the school year.

The letter addresses school district concerns about funding as well as the opening of facilities.

“Certainly, we all want students to be in school, but local school districts must have the flexibility to make sure any approach taken is safe for students, staff, and families without the fear of losing funding,” the letter states. “To be clear, we must have the ability to make decisions as to whether or not campuses will be open or available at any time during the school year.”

Martinez said SAISD will begin asking families to decide whether they want in-person or online instruction for the first nine-week grading period that will start Aug. 17. After the first three weeks of online instruction, families can choose how their students will learn after that period.

Knowing how many students will be on campus and how many will be remote will help the district decide how to staff buildings and arrange classrooms for the fall semester.

Harlandale ISD Superintendent Gerardo Soto will also ask his board to delay his district’s start date from Aug. 5 to Aug. 24.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.