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Pandemic Leaves Texas Parents, Educators With A Tough Choice This Fall

School lockers in a charter school hallway in November 2017.
File Photo |Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio

Amid a surge in coronavirus cases across the state, the Texas Education Agency told Texas school districts last week that they are required to give all parents the option of sending their children to school five days a week this fall.

The guidance upended district plans, and it gave parents and educators a tough decision to make.

San Antonio mom Abigail Baiza said her only real choice is whether or not to send her kids to school with masks.

They’re 6 and 7 — several years younger than the age required to wear masks under an order from Gov. Greg Abbott. 

She and her husband are both teachers. Like many Texas parents, they have to go to work, so their kids have to go to school.

“My hands feel like they are tied. It's do what is best for the students at the cost of your own children,” Baiza said. “I love the students I teach, and I love where I work. And I love my children. I want what's best for everyone, and in this situation my children might not be getting what is best for them.”

With a month to go before the school year starts, Baiza is trying to get her kindergartner and first grader used to the idea of wearing a mask all day.

Baiza teaches 3rd grade at an IDEA charter school in a low-income neighborhood on San Antonio’s West Side. She feels pulled in two directions as a teacher and as a parent—both worried about their health and about the risk of students falling behind academically if they’re not on campus.

“If these kids, their educational gaps expand and expand, there won't be coming back from that,” Baiza said. “But then if I'm not 100% for virtual learning, then I'm saying I’m OK with the possibility of children dying. And I’m not OK with that.”

Like thousands of other teachers across the state, Baiza thinks in-person learning should be put on hold until the number of coronavirus cases has slowed. She’s written the governor asking him to do just that. Several teacher groups, including the Association of Texas Professional Educators, are calling for the same.

Even though distance learning was a challenge for Leticia Tapia last spring, she and her daughter plan on keeping her four grandkids in the San Antonio Independent School District’s remote learning program this fall.

“I'm not too technology smart. So, you know, it was a struggle for me,” said Tapia, who lives with her grandkids.

Tapia is a home health care worker, and her daughter recently returned to her retail job after being laid off while shops were closed. Tapia said she’d find a job working nights if need be so she can keep watching her grandkids while her daughter’s at work.

"Say a teacher's infected, and then the classroom … gets infected, and then the whole school's out,” Tapia said. “In reality, you don't know who has the virus. Sometimes there's people that are carrying it and don't know."

Many district leaders, including Northside Independent School District Superintendent Brian Woods, want the state to change its rules to grant them greater flexibility this fall. 

Northside is San Antonio’s largest district, with more than a 100,000 students — many in schools with little room to spare.

Before the Texas Education Agency released its guidelines, Northside was planning on slowly phasing-in face-to-face instruction, with first priority given to students who need it the most, including special education students and English Language Learners. The district also planned to have some students attend on alternating days to help keep them six feet apart.

“Most of us believe that there are groups of students that need more than others to be in the building, but we're not going to have the choice to enforce that one way or another,” Woods said.

If he has to give all parents the option of sending their kids to school, Woods said he can’t guarantee Northside will be able to keep students and staff socially distant.

“We realize the need to go back to in-person school. Everybody gets that. Everybody wants that, frankly. But there are lots of risks here that seem not to be able to be well mitigated,” Woods said.

Woods wants to have greater local control so that Northside has the option to keep his students learning remotely for as long as nine weeks. But he said he’s not taking any action until he knows it won’t risk the loss of state funding.

Woods may soon get that assurance. During an interview with Houston television station abc13 on Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott said superintendents will be granted greater flexibility, including a longer period of distance learning, “in the next few days.”

Under current guidelines, districts are only allowed to delay face-to-face instruction during a three week phase-in period. A growing number of school districts, including Denton, El Paso and Laredo, are pushing back start dates to take advantage of those three weeks and enable them to wait until Labor Day to return to campus.

Here in San Antonio, Harlandale and San Antonio ISD announced Tuesday that they will push back their start dates too. Harlandale plans to move its start date from August 5 until August 24. San Antonio ISD plans to start on August 17 instead of August 10. Northside ISD’s start date is also August 24.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter at @cmpcamille.

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Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.