Since coronavirus cases started climbing after winter break, Shelley Weber has kept her three sons home from school.
With an unvaccinated 4-year-old and other medical concerns in the family, Weber and her husband decided not to let the boys return to the classroom until the omicron variant has passed. She keeps up with the boys’ assignments, communicating often with their teachers in the San Antonio Independent School District, and carefully watches the Metro Health COVID-19 dashboard for a decline in cases.
“We’re hopeful they can return soon,” she said.
San Antonio school districts reported more than five times as many COVID-19 cases the week of Jan. 23, the most recent numbers available from the state and districts, than during the last week of August, when the delta variant caused cases and hospitalizations to peak. Those numbers are likely an undercount because not all districts report case data to the state or on their websites. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to report case data to the state.
Unlike in August, children ages 5 and up can now get vaccinated against the coronavirus. School officials hoped the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine for younger children would help boost dwindling enrollment and attendance since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, but the arrival of omicron seems to have derailed those hopes for now. In San Antonio's largest school districts — Northside, North East and San Antonio ISDs — attendance rates sometimes sank below 80% in the weeks following winter break.
Before the pandemic, SAISD's attendance rate historically hovered around 93%, but since March 2020, it has dipped below 89%, Deputy Superintendent Patti Salzmann said. Omicron has driven down attendance even further this month to 79%-80%, depending on the day.
Texas funds school districts primarily based on average daily attendance. During the 2020-21 school year, state officials agreed to fully fund districts, despite large drops in enrollment and attendance, based on the number of students who attended school before the pandemic. But the state has made no announcements regarding funding this school year.
In a statement, the TEA said it is closely monitoring the situation.
"Our agency is in regular contact with school system leaders across Texas, and supporting the needs of districts that are reporting challenges due to the omicron surge," the agency said in the statement. "This includes exploring policies that will provide schools with additional assistance.”
Salzmann said some parents, like Weber, are afraid to bring their children to school because of the high COVID-19 positivity rate, which jumped to 22% in SAISD the second week of January from less than 1% the week of Dec. 11. The district conducts weekly testing at each campus and requires students and staff wear masks.
“Our goal is to ensure that our parents are aware that our environments are safe," she said. "We have some of the tightest protocols of any district. We have continued to have a mask mandate. We continue to provide masks to teachers."
The district recently spent $75,000 to buy 250,000 KN95 masks for staff and students in grades 4-12. The SAISD teachers and support staff union celebrated the purchase.
To Weber, SAISD has done a great job implementing COVID-19 protocols, such as the mask mandate. That's not why she is keeping her boys at home. She said her family has been extremely cautious with omicron because her 4-year-old, Owen, can't get vaccinated yet, and she is able to stay home with the kids right now.
Last semester, things were starting to feel normal, Weber said. She sent her sons back to school after a year and a half of virtual instruction, which many districts did not offer this school year. The Texas Legislature passed a bill to fund virtual learning in late August — after school had started in most districts — but it excluded students who failed state standardized exams. SAISD has a virtual program for medically challenged students and their siblings and students who've experienced pandemic-related trauma.
With no virtual option for her students, Weber put her job search plans on hold again and kept the kids at home. She checks the Metro Health COVID-19 dashboard daily, writing each day's case count on the calendar.
"It's been a long two years, and I'm ready for this to be over," she said.
But students aren't the only ones missing school. Districts already struggling to find enough employees have been scrambling to find substitutes to cover classrooms after hundreds of teachers and other staff members were absent.
In Northside ISD, campus leaders got creative with covering classrooms they could not find a substitute for, including combining classes and assigning administrators or other campus staff to classrooms, spokesman Barry Perez said.
If staffing problems persist, South San Antonio ISD could use student teachers as substitutes, said Chief Academic Officer Theresa Servellon. The district will use about $1 million of the $6 million grant it received from the state to help students recover academically from the pandemic to pay student teachers a yearly $25,000 stipend.
South San has partnered with Texas A&M University-San Antonio to provide student teachers with classroom experience and a mentor teacher. This partnership also could provide the district with a pipeline of new teachers once they complete their degrees, Servellon said.
“Research shows that teachers that go through a strong teacher program that includes internship components stay in the profession longer and do better their first year when they go in and have their own classroom," she said.
School districts have also tried asking parents to substitute and increasing substitute pay rates to attract more candidates. Salzmann said she thinks the higher pay rates have helped SAISD recruit substitutes; Friday she received no requests for staff to cover unfilled substitute positions.
In addition, SAISD staff has built relationships with people in the community who may not be looking for work but are willing to answer a call to substitute at their local schools, Salzmann said. The district hears from substitutes who only want to serve at certain schools to help their communities, and that's never happened before.
“It builds a very strong partnership between the schools and their communities," she said.