Melina Espiritu-Azocar would give just about anything to be back in the classroom, soaking in the frenetic energy of her middle school students who usually barrel through the campus doors each August with stories from their summer vacations.

But this fall will feel different to the Northside Independent School District teacher, even though state education officials have mandated that in-person classes will resume.

“Having us return to the classroom is a disaster waiting to happen,” Espiritu-Azocar said. “Once we return, I don’t see how we would be in the classroom very long before they start shutting down the schools” because of coronavirus outbreaks.

Espiritu-Azocar is one of the hundreds of thousands of Texas teachers grappling with a tough choice: whether or not to return to the classroom in the middle of a public health crisis. Returning brings personal health and safety concerns, while choosing to stay home when the state mandates campuses reopen raises other problems.

Administrators and principals are working to accommodate concerned teachers, but there’s no guaranteed job security for educators who don’t feel comfortable returning to the classroom. State education officials have not weighed in on how – or if – teachers can opt out of returning to teach in person. Teachers say the choice won’t be easy or without consequences.

Wanda Longoria, president of Northside ISD’s American Federation of Teachers (AFT) chapter, said the fear of contracting coronavirus is causing teachers to contemplate resigning or retiring rather than risk teaching in the classroom. She said educators are telling her they fear bringing the coronavirus home to their family and worry about their own underlying health conditions that could affect them if they were to contract the virus. They also worry about how to manage their own child care, she said.

“You have teachers who are going to be told, ‘You have to go to work’ and they are not comfortable sending their children to day care where the cases are growing,” Longoria said. “You are putting us in a life and death situation.”

Longoria points to a Kaiser Family Foundation study that found 1 in 4 teachers have a health condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness from the coronavirus. While a similar percentage of teachers are at risk in comparison to workers overall, the study found schools present greater challenges because of the volume of traffic and small spaces, “which may make social distancing a significant challenge in many settings.”

Texas on Tuesday reported a record one-day high in new cases with 10,745. In San Antonio, the number of confirmed cases since Bexar County began tracking them reached 20,000 on Monday night and the death toll neared 200.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic. We are grappling every day with the number of cases, with just a reality that is much more menacing and starker than it was when we closed schools off in March,” said Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel. “We know what it looked like when we closed schools in March, and for now all of a sudden them to say it’s safe to reopen schools. … It’s not safe to reopen schools right now.”

The Texas Education Agency released guidance last week that requires districts to offer an in-person, full-day option for all students who want it. Districts can offer remote learning, but state education officials won’t require them to do so. The governor and other education officials indicated Tuesday that new guidance might be forthcoming that will give districts more flexibility in their reopening plans, but no details were immediately provided.

State funding plays a significant role in school districts’ reopening plans, Longoria said.

“Districts are being forced to open because funding is tied to opening,” she said, acknowledging districts can’t let all teachers remain at home without jeopardizing state money that funds payroll. “If they don’t [reopen] then they’re going to get dinged on it, so we’re very concerned on [about] it.”

The San Antonio Alliance and Northside AFT are part of a broader coalition of educators in San Antonio asking local and state officials to ensure that at least the first nine weeks of instruction will be carried out remotely.

Texas law empowers local health authorities to shutter schools in certain circumstances, including during public health crises. Mayor Ron Nirenberg met with area superintendents on Tuesday on the subject, but said he didn’t want to make a unilateral decision for San Antonio’s 17 school districts.

“I certainly believe that there shouldn’t be a rush back to school in-person if it’s not safe, and right now we’ve got a tremendous amount of community spread,” Nirenberg said.

The San Antonio Coalition on Schools Reopening sent a letter to state and local officials Tuesday asking that schools remain closed or offer only remote learning until San Antonio and Bexar County have adequate capacity for coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and tracking the outbreak.

Some local officials already have taken action to delay the scheduled start of school. In El Paso, the top health authority ordered all PK-12 classrooms to remain closed until Sept. 8. In Dallas ISD, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa suggested his district could delay its start date until after Labor Day.

Tom Cummins, a union leader involved with the AFT chapters in South San Antonio and North East ISDs, signed onto the San Antonio coalition letter, which suggested local health authorities follow El Paso’s lead.

Cummins said teachers groups are calling on educators to unite and pressure state leaders to change the rules so school districts can keep students and staff at home until the pandemic conditions change.

Elected officials at the state and national level have pushed for campuses to reopen, saying putting kids back in schools is an essential component to restarting the economy and allowing workers to return to their jobs without concerns for child care.

That’s not something schools should be thinking about, Cummins said.

“We cannot answer the economic question,” he said. “The only way that can be answered is if the pandemic goes away.”

In recent days, some local school leaders have indicated they favor more options in reopening the schools, clashing with TEA’s guidance that campuses must reopen.

The Texas School Alliance, comprising 40 of the State’s largest school districts, including North East, Northside, and San Antonio ISDs, wrote to Abbott last week to appeal for flexibility.

The school districts asked the Commissioner of Education to waive student attendance requirements to ensure funding remains the same as it was in the spring. They also asked Abbott to allow school districts to use hybrid approaches to learning, bringing some students onto campus for in-person instruction during some days, while keeping others at home.

“We encourage Texas to allow school systems to begin the 2020-2021 school year with full online learning for students for a minimum of the first six- or nine-week grading period without state aid reduction,” the letter stated.

The San Antonio educators coalition’s letter’s referred to this statement before asking state leaders to stand with schools’ staff members to ensure the “safest possible learning and working environment.”

On Tuesday, San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez announced his school district would start class virtually with all classes taking place online for the first three weeks of 2020-21, an option permitted by the state. The same day, Harlandale ISD Superintendent Gerardo Soto released a statement saying he wanted to explore shifting classes all online, but needed more guidance from State and local health officials before doing so.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.