First-grader Isabella Polasek set foot in a classroom for the first time Thursday at the Advanced Learning Academy back-to-school night.

After a year of virtual learning, Isabella’s parents are ready for their daughter to go to school in person, but they will drop her off Monday for the first day of school with a mixture of dread and uncertainty as the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to drive up cases and hospitalizations in Bexar County. They are putting their faith in the Advanced Learning Academy staff and other students, who are not old enough to be vaccinated, to do their part to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

“It’s always a concern, not just in school but everywhere,” said Isabella’s mom, Sabrina Macal-Polasek. “As a parent, our No. 1 concern is that everyone is doing their part and extending that same courtesy.”

For Texas educators, doing their part is limited to encouraging everyone in schools to wear masks. Unlike last school year, districts cannot require students or staff to wear masks, nor can they mandate COVID-19 vaccinations under Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order. Only children 12 and older are eligible for one of the coronavirus vaccines.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called Abbott’s executive order “callous and heartless” at a Friday press conference. He said the city would continue working with school systems to encourage mask-wearing as recommended by health officials.

“There’s some danger lying ahead,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff added.

Adding to some parents’ fears was guidance issued Thursday by the Texas Education Agency that schools do not have to notify school staff or families if a child or staffer tests positive for COVID-19. Only local and state officials must be notified.

Many parents feel the state has hamstrung school districts by precluding them from enforcing what health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are the top two protections against the coronavirus: vaccinations and face masks. Additionally, districts that want to offer virtual instruction will not receive state funding to support remote learning after Texas lawmakers failed to pass a bill to fund virtual education during the regular legislative session. House Bill 1468, which was strongly supported by both Democrats and Republicans, died after House Democrats walked off the floor to block passage of a controversial voting bill.

Legislators could revive virtual instruction funding bills during the second special session Abbott called Thursday, the governor’s press secretary said. Abbott listed several educational priorities for the session, set to begin Saturday at noon, but it’s unclear whether a virtual option would be considered by the Legislature.

Some school districts plan to use their federal stimulus funds to cover virtual instruction for certain students. Northside Independent School District, San Antonio’s largest district, will provide remote learning to about 300 elementary students who applied in the spring to receive it, district spokesman Barry Perez said. NISD expects to lose roughly $2 million in state funds this year by educating these students remotely.

Even if virtual instruction were available in San Antonio ISD, where Isabella attends school, Macal-Polasek said she probably still would have sent her daughter in person this year. Isabella now understands why she needs to wear a mask and how to properly wash her hands, and it simply was not feasible to keep her and the couple’s 3-year-old son at home with both parents working full time, Macal-Polasek said.

Carolyn and Abraham Guerrero kept all three of their SAISD students at home last school year, and they likely would have kept their youngest, 8-year-old Isaiah, learning remotely again this year because he isn’t old enough to get vaccinated and the recent spike in COVID-19 cases has them worried about his health. Isaiah doesn’t like wearing a mask, his mother said, so they bought him a face shield that has dinosaurs on it, hoping that will protect him.

“We’re a little nervous, but we’re going to trust that they’re going to take all the precautions that are needed,” Carolyn Guerrero said of the Advanced Learning Academy staff. “I know it’s best for him to be at school.”

Students and their parents pass by a sign asking them to mask up during a back to school event at Advanced Learning Academy on Thursday.
Students and their parents pass by a sign asking them to mask up during a back to school event at Advanced Learning Academy on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

As part of their safety plans, both SAISD and NISD officials encourage students and staff to wear masks. SAISD asks parents to sign a form if they do not want their child to wear a mask. North East ISD’s plan states students and staff members can choose whether to wear a mask and “that no one should be bullied or harassed at school or school-sponsored events for their choice.”

“We’re not going to get into the politics of this,” NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said. “We will make them optional and respect everyone’s decision.”

The 2021-22 public health guidance from the Texas Education Agency released Thursday reinforces Abbott’s executive order that schools cannot mandate masks but also states that students and staff must be allowed to wear them if they want. The guidance also states:

  • Staff do not have to screen themselves for COVID-19 symptoms before coming on campus
  • Students who are sick with COVID-19 cannot attend school, and schools may offer remote instruction to students while they are home sick
  • Districts may provide COVID-19 testing to staff and to students with written permission from parents
  • Districts do not have to conduct contact tracing, but they “should notify” parents if their child is a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19
  • Students do not have to stay home if they are close contacts, but if they do, they should remain home at least 10 days unless they receive a negative test result
  • Districts may offer remote instruction to students who choose to stay home because they came in close contact with someone who tested positive

Dr. Charles Hankins, chief medical officer and president of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, said at a recent City of San Antonio press conference that the delta variant is impacting children more than earlier strains of the coronavirus, and the risk for spreading the virus will be greater with more students attending school in person. He and Metro Health officials are working with school systems to establish layers of protection against the virus, such as vaccinations for those who are old enough, masks, physical distancing, and ventilation.

“We can beat the drum to death, but if the parents and over 12-year-olds get vaccinated, it’s going to protect those 12 and younger in school until they’re eligible,” Hankins said.

And although the schools can’t require masks, “every parent can mandate it for your family,” he said.

The absence of that requirement is still a major concern for Kristen Miceli, who has two daughters at the Advanced Learning Academy at Euclid.

“It’s hard for us to know what percentage of kids in their classrooms will be wearing masks. They both will be wearing masks at school. That’s a family decision we made,” she said. “We’re nervous going into the school year because we just don’t know what it’s going to look like, and this is really different.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.