On Aug. 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 guidelines as many San Antonio students and teachers were preparing to return to the classroom.

The updated measures are more relaxed, notably shifting more responsibility to individuals.

In its update, the CDC no longer recommends quarantine for people exposed to COVID-19, nor a negative test to return to school or the workplace. While the CDC kept masking indoors as a recommendation when county risk levels are high, the agency dropped its social distancing recommendation.

San Antonio school district officials say the new guidelines will help teachers and students stay in school, leading to a more stable learning environment.

Among the three biggest school districts in Bexar County — San Antonio, Northside and North East independent school districts, common COVID-19 precautions going into the new school year include no longer requiring exposed students and staff to quarantine, encouraging but not requiring masks, occasionally offering COVID-19 vaccines and testing to insured students and doing away with social distancing.

Districts are focusing on other measures, including cleaning and sanitizing, relying on updated air ventilation units and conducting some contact tracing.

Toni Thompson, San Antonio ISD’s associate superintendent of human capital management, said the relaxed precautions reflect “the new normal” most people are already living.

That’s the case even though Bexar County’s COVID-19 risk exposure has remained “high” for nearly a month, according to the city dashboard, a fact that troubles the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, said Alejandra Lopez, the union’s president.

“We are concerned to see the CDC relax the guidelines so dramatically in the middle of a continued surge,” she said. “From the beginning, we have called on the district to adhere to Metro Health and to the CDC guidelines. So for the CDC to relax the goalposts at the start of the school year, it is concerning.”

Lopez said the union has been working with SAISD on COVID-19 protocols for the past two years and has been advocating for preserving the health of staff, students and the community. 

Lopez said the union recognizes SAISD has measures in place that other districts have long abandoned and that it feels confident in the precautions the district will continue to take, like strongly recommending masks. 

“We are in a state of high community transmission … but because of the governor and the limits that have been placed on school districts legally, the district hasn’t instituted an actual mandate, but we are strongly recommending everyone to wear masks to keep each other safe during this time,” said Lopez.

All districts will notify parents if their child’s classmate has tested positive for COVID-19 but will not require their child to quarantine. The districts no longer will require proof of a negative test before students can return to school, unless they are symptomatic.

Districts will have parents monitor the exposed student and will encourage vaccination.

Thompson said although SAISD did away with contact tracing in January, the district will conduct contact tracing in special cases, including in cases of indoor athletics, early childhood and special needs classrooms where students eat together, and when mask wearing is restricted due to sensory issues. Contact tracing will also remain available to teachers when they feel it’s necessary.

“Surges typically happen in the winter when you have exposure to everything else like the flu and other infectious diseases,” said Thompson. “We just want to continue with that support and then if we determine we don’t need it after that, then we’ll redirect our resources.”

North East ISD will not do any contact tracing.

With the elimination of the quarantine requirement, parents can still choose to keep their child home if they’ve been exposed, but D’Lynn McCartney, assistant director of Health Services for NEISD, clarified that the student would be counted as absent. 

“We are really focusing on making sure that students are accessing their education, that they are able to return to school when they are no longer contagious,” said McCartney, adding that students and employees are still required to be out for five days from symptom onset or positive test.

SAISD clarified that if a student’s family member has tested positive, the student will not be sent home from school, Thompson said, adding the student will be monitored for symptoms and get tested.

“We’re happy that we don’t have to quarantine the students and the adults,” said Thompson. “We need employees at work as long as they’re well and we need students in school and as long as they’re well.”

SAISD is awaiting the Texas Education Agency’s approval of the district’s 2022-2023 COVID-19 Testing Program application to fund six testing sites. It was unclear how frequently testing would be offered or how much funding the district would receive.

North East and Northside ISD schools will offer testing at campus nurses’ offices and will point parents to order free tests from the government online.

Each district will offer occasional vaccine drives. Northside and San Antonio will publish a calendar for free COVID-19 vaccines on their websites. Both districts offered vaccine drives ahead of the school year to insured students and staff. North East ISD said it will not offer vaccines, due to their wide availability at pharmacies and grocery stores.

No districts have mask mandates, but they welcome students and staff to wear masks if they would like. SAISD particularly is encouraging masking with signage and district leadership modeling the practice when risk levels are high to emphasize its importance, said Thompson.

In its update, the CDC recommended improving indoor air ventilation. Thompson said SAISD installed new air filtration units last year to help with prevention and will rely on that this year.

Northside ISD said its focus will be on robust cleaning measures, sanitizing and wiping down frequently used surfaces.

“Students need to be in class and it’s really important,” said McCartney. “They lose a lot of valuable instruction time when they’re at home, so hopefully, by these little looser guidelines, we’re able to return to the classroom a little bit.”

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. A 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, her work has been recognized by the Texas Managing Editors. She previously worked...