Classrooms inside Eloise Japhet Elementary have protective measures in place such as restricted desks that allow students to be socially distant.
Classrooms inside Eloise Japhet Elementary have protective measures in place such as restricted desks that allow students to be socially distant. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise locally, teachers and other school staff members are concerned about their districts’ plans to mitigate the spread of the virus, despite more free testing that has been made available to students and staff.

San Antonio Independent School District announced Thursday that it has expanded its COVID-19 testing program in partnership with Community Labs to 40 more campuses, making testing available at 57 campuses, including high schools, middle schools, academies, elementaries, and early education centers. SAISD began working with Community Labs in November at 17 schools located in zip codes with the highest coronavirus positivity rates.

North East ISD also announced this week that it is providing free rapid testing to students and staff with COVID-19 symptoms through a state program. Students must have a signed parental consent form to get the curbside testing, and results are usually available in 15 minutes, North East ISD spokesperson Aubrey Chancellor said.

“If someone is showing symptoms at our schools, they’re going to be sent home immediately,” she said. “While they’re being home, they will then get this test pass so that they can go ahead and find out right away if they are positive.”

San Antonio ISD has these rapid tests available, too, but the district is using them for high school seniors participating in extracurricular activities because of the close contact students have during practice or rehearsal, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said.

Northside ISD plans to make the same rapid tests available to 10 schools, starting Monday, district spokesperson Barry Perez said.

Still, teachers and other school staff members are worried about the recent spike in COVID-19 cases and how those cases may spill over into schools. They also don’t feel their districts are following the guidelines for schools set by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

Melina Espiritu-Azocar, lead organizer for the Northside American Federation of Teachers, said the school district is not limiting building and classroom capacity to 25 percent, the threshold Metro Health set for schools when Bexar County is in the yellow zone, or a medium risk level. She has heard from members that capacity in some schools has reached 45 percent, with some teachers reporting class sizes between 18 and 20 students. One teacher reported having 30 students in the classroom, Espiritu-Azocar said.

“With this giant swing in cases across the city right now, we have real concerns in the safety and well-being of not only our members but the students and the staff across the district, including our custodial staff and our bus drivers who are really on the front lines of this on a regular basis,” she said. “The next two and a half weeks are going to be really integral.”

Metro Health guidelines for schools also recommend students remain in pods of six or fewer students and that in-person instruction should be reserved for students with special needs, those who are struggling, and those who lack access to adequate resources.

Espiritu-Azocar said this is not happening in Northside ISD. Middle and high school students are switching classes, increasing their interactions with others, and making contact tracing “a nightmare.”

Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance, expressed similar concerns about San Antonio ISD. She said the union at first was encouraged by the district’s safety plan and how it followed Metro Health guidelines, but district leaders have moved away from that guidance, which is compounded by the fact that the Texas Education Agency is “essentially holding district funding hostage” by forcing them to offer in-person instruction.

Martinez said about 30 percent of students are learning in person right now. He said lunchtime presents challenges for physical distancing and mask-wearing, but the district installed Plexiglas dividers to enhance safety. He also said teachers are working with parents to see if students who are doing well can learn from home to reduce classroom sizes.

Additionally, Martinez said, data has shown that COVID-19 transmissions in schools are extremely low, even in larger districts like Northside, where more students are attending in person.

Lopez said that “narrative” district leaders are touting of the coronavirus not spreading in schools does not reflect the current COVID-19 situation. She also believes the data has not shown high rates of virus transmission in schools because of the way contact tracing is conducted, which does not include people wearing masks who came into contact with a sick individual.

“We have not had schools open during a COVID spike like the one that we’re seeing right now,” she said. “We need to prioritize the health and safety of our students and our community, and we should not be taking any unnecessary risks. At a moment when we’re seeing a surge in our community is not the time to then bring in more students or to stray from the safety practice matrix that was introduced earlier in the year.”

Espiritu-Azocar agreed with her union counterpart that there is not enough data to determine how much the coronavirus is spreading in schools. Metro Health has documented at least seven instances of people contracting the coronavirus in schools, according to the City of San Antonio COVID-19 website. She said communities are not separate from schools, so as cases rise in the community, they will rise in schools, too.

Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said in a letter to families this week that the district is aware of the concerns expressed about continuing to hold in-person classes, but he is confident in the health and safety measures in place, including the use of face masks, frequent hand washing, and physical distancing.

“We believe that our schools are safe,” he wrote in the letter. “Our contact tracing investigations have shown that, in most cases, the spread of COVID is taking place off-campus and not as a result of close contact on-campus.”

Superintendents seek vaccine priority for educators

Meanwhile, Martinez and superintendents from four other large Texas school district officials signed a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott Wednesday from the chair of the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents, requesting that he include teachers and other school workers in the state’s initial distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Texas Department of State Health Services announced last week that health care workers will be the first to receive those doses.

Martinez said the feedback he has heard from the state on including school employees has been positive but that it will be a while before the details are hammered out by officials and the vaccine is distributed.

The Association of Texas Professional Educators issued a statement Thursday expressing relief that the state plans to include school nurses in its first round of vaccine distribution, along with other health care workers. 

“Based upon our discussions with state officials in recent weeks, ATPE is confident that educators working in Texas public schools will be included in this second phase and have early access to the vaccine, if they choose to receive it,” the statement read. “This is a critical step to getting Texas back to normal. Educators are and have always been on the front lines doing work that is integral to the well-being of Texas and its citizens.”

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Brooke Crum

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