Chairs are sectioned off to allow social distancing at UTSA on Sept. 1. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

It took about seven days for the University of Texas at San Antonio’s sticker brigade to mark up the city’s largest college campus with signs advertising social distancing, hand washing, and other safety measures. In total, the group placed 24,000 signs around the 5.5 million-square-foot campus.

The placards caution students that only one person should sit on a bench, workout machines located close to others are not for use at the same time, and elevators are limited to a two-person capacity.

The school is holding only 5 percent of classes in person and university officials expect there to be just 270 students on campus for class each day. Those who venture to Main Campus will be greeted with a changed school environment.

“We had mandatory training for our students and our faculty and staff to take before they came to campus to give them a sense of social responsibility” said Veronica Mendez, UTSA’s vice president for business affairs. “We provided them wipes, sanitizers, and information.”

UTSA began class Aug. 24, becoming one of the first San Antonio school systems to welcome back some of its students for face-to-face instruction. Many other schools are preparing to do the same after Labor Day now that public health indicators surpassed the threshold for safely restarting in-person instruction in small groups.

Like the UTSA students taking classes in person, learners throughout the city of San Antonio from pre-K through college will have to adapt to what education looks like during a global pandemic. Many of the changes to campuses are not permanent but designed to encourage social distancing.

Chairs in a classroom are labeled and separated to ensure social distancing at UTSA. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We’re just making the environment as touch-free as possible,” said Paul Goodman, UTSA associate vice president for facilities. “And where you do have to touch something, we’ve beefed up our custodial service to clean it.”

When students return to campus, they’ll quickly become familiar with new health protocols and materials that support a safe campus environment.

Personalized face masks, wash buckets for toys

Bus drivers transporting 4-year-old students to their Pre-K 4 SA campus on Sept. 8 will greet their riders with a temperature gun. Before a student can board a bus, their families will also have to screen them for symptoms associated with COVID-19.

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School staff will record all the health information in an app that is accessible to teachers throughout the day. Any adult on a Pre-K 4 SA campus will also receive a temperature screening from new thermal scanners installed near each campus entrance.

Only 10 students will be permitted to ride any bus, with only one student seated per row. Other rows will be taped off and alternating windows will be left open to encourage air circulation.

Pre-K 4 SA will require students to wear masks on the bus and put on face shields once they arrive on campus. The face shields will remain at school, bear each child’s name, and be sanitized each night.

Once students arrive, they’ll go straight to their classrooms, where Plexiglas partitions divide tables so students have their own protected space. For the first weeks back on campus, Pre-K 4 SA will limit the number of students in each room to five, or 25 percent of the normal capacity.

Pre-K 4 SA custodians Evelia Garcia and Jerry Romero spray disinfectant inside a classroom on Aug. 20. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

During the day, students can still play with toys and other objects but must deposit them in soapy buckets for cleaning. At mealtime, students would typically share in family-style meals, but this year students will eat individual boxed lunches.

“The classroom actually looks a lot like it normally does because you want it to be as normal an experience as possible,” Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray said. “It’s really important for children’s development, and we’ve already had strict sanitization procedures in place. … What we’ve been able to do now is just enhance that.”

Over the summer, the early childhood education provider upgraded the bathrooms attached to each classroom so the sinks and toilets all have no-touch technology. This will remain in place after the pandemic, Baray said.

Pre-K 4 SA also upgraded its heating, ventilation, and air conditioning or HVAC systems. The schools increased the number of air filters from eight to 13 and plans to change them out every two instead of three months.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends school systems resuming in-person class pay close attention to ventilation to ensure clean air delivery and the dilution of potential contaminants. The CDC recommends increasing air filtration, using fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows, and checking air filters frequently.

Another CDC recommendation encourages schools to spend time outdoors when possible, which Pre-K 4 SA plans to do.

Outdoor education was already a large part of the Pre-K 4 SA curriculum pre-pandemic, Baray said. Kids frequently played outside with toys and various materials. These same materials will be available along with wash stations for sanitization.

Baray said she expects classes to spend between 50 and 60 percent of their days outside.

Social-distancing markers

At Japhet Academy on San Antonio’s Southeast Side, 10 percent of students will return to campus next Tuesday. The majority of those in-person learners will be students in pre-K through second grade, said Principal Natasha Gould.

“Safety and instruction are normally a principal’s first concern,” Gould said. “Now I’m thinking about how do I solve this? How do we make sure they can come here safely? It’s a different set of thoughts and practices and procedures.”

Once students arrive at Japhet next week, school leaders will give each student a color-coded wristband that corresponds with the class they are supposed to remain with throughout the day.

Under normal circumstances, students typically arrived for the school day early and sat outside their classroom waiting for instruction to start around 7:55 a.m. During this pre-class time period, students often clumped together, sitting close to friends. Over the summer, Gould and other school officials placed markers along the wall to show students where they could sit and still remain 6 feet apart from their peers.

Classrooms inside Japhet Academy have protective measures in place such as restricted desks that allow students to practice social distancing and Plexiglas in front of teachers’ desks. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Once students enter the classroom, they’ll have assigned seats with no more than two students allowed per table. Students won’t be able to use any other seats. Plexiglas dividers separate the teacher from the students, and the front row of seats is out of commission so the educator has space to teach.

At lunchtime, students will use a similar setup in the cafeteria, spaced well apart from their peers. The school will distribute lunches in pre-packaged boxes. If students form a line as they wait for their meals, stickers will indicate how to remain spaced apart.

To ensure proper airflow, San Antonio Independent School District has plans to more frequently switch out air filters and evaluate the HVAC systems, Gould said.

Slashing capacity and adding sanitizer

At UTSA, the on-campus fall semester has been in session for less than two weeks and life on campus already seems nearly unrecognizable. The signs papering over every seating area on campus are not the only changes – school leaders also pared back the amount of furniture in main congregating areas like the Sombrilla so tables could be spaced apart.

Under normal circumstances, students would normally fill the spacious courtyard to recruit for their organizations or gather with friends. Extracurricular activities now take place online, and students gather socially in small groups wearing masks or in their homes.

The school’s library remains a mostly virtual operation but does engage in contactless delivery when necessary. Should a student need to check out a book, the library deposits it in a locker from which a student can then collect it without having to interact with anyone.

The school’s recreation center remains open, although rearranged from last fall. The bounce of basketballs is absent from the courts that were normally filled with students playing 3-on-3 games throughout the day. Weight machines line the court so students can still work out and maintain a social distance.

UTSA’s wellness center puts social distancing and cleaning measures into practice to keep students safe. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

University leaders chose to limit the number of classrooms in use, only keeping 69 of its 367 labs and classrooms operational this semester. School leaders mapped out new space limits for students and faculty, restricting each room to 20 percent or less of its normal capacity.

For example, UTSA limited a heavily trafficked 200-seat auditorium to 40 people. Lime green tape marks the backs of seats deemed acceptable for use.

“We’ve given them visual cues on the seat and floor as to where they can and can’t sit,” Mendez said. “It’s a different experience.”

Antibacterial wipe stations and stands with hand sanitizer flank the entrance of each building and lab. These materials were somewhat hard to come by, Goodman said.

“We knew it would take some time,” he added. “But we were literally receiving some of these materials the Friday before classes started on Monday.”

UTSA had the ability to do a trial run of the fall semester when research teams returned to UTSA in June. While researchers are typically graduate students and their behavior doesn’t always mirror that of an 18- or 19-year old, their presence helped school officials to game plan potential pitfalls or solutions for when students did return, Goodman said.

“We learned a lot during that time, and I’m sure there will be even more things we think of throughout this semester,” he said.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.