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Education

Boerne ISD Starts School Year With Face-To-Face Instruction

School buses are running and classrooms are buzzing in the Boerne Independent School District again.

Boerne’s new school year started Wednesday with face-to-face instruction at all of its campuses, including its two Bexar County schools, despite a recommendation from the Bexar County Health Authority that schools remain closed to in-person learning right now to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

According to Boerne communications director Bryan Benway, the district has consulted other medical experts and feels confident in its plan to keep students and staff safe.

“We would not give parents the in-person option if we thought it was not safe. That’s just something that we would never do,” Benway said.

But some Boerne parents aren’t so confident.

Angela Walch has three daughters at Fair Oaks Ranch Elementary, one of Boerne’s Bexar County schools. She’s opted to keep them in distance learning because she’s concerned that Boerne’s safety plan is “inadequate.”

“It seems to be the school district's policy that masks and distancing are ‘either / ors’ rather than ‘ands,’ so that if you're 6 feet away from someone, you don't need to worry about a mask. Or if you're wearing a mask, you don't need to worry about being 6 feet away,” Walch said. “If you have the core guidance wrong, that's a really serious problem.”

Public health guidelines stipulate that people shouldn’t be closer than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes, even if everyone wears face coverings.  

During an interview with TPR in July, Benway said the high level of interest in returning to the classroom would sometimes make social distancing difficult.

“Students aren’t going to be wearing masks the entire day,” Benway said. “It’s going to be when necessary and when social distancing cannot be enforced or maintained…But there are going to be a lot of times simply because of school size and classrooms that we’re going to have to have masks on a little bit more.”

According to figures published by the district in late July, 77% of Boerne families have chosen to start the school year on campus.

Walch is also concerned that Boerne doesn’t have a plan to increase ventilation, another measure recommended by public health officials to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Increasing a building’s ventilation can range from opening a window to bringing more outside air through the HVAC system.

“It's impossible for parents to evaluate how good the ventilation is in a school, it's just not a transparent thing,” Walch said. “I spoke with the superintendent and asked about what the ventilation plans are, and it sounds like they might be thinking about it. But nothing has been provided publicly to say, this is what we're doing in this particular classroom, this is what the ventilation and air filtration situation is.”

Boerne petitioned state officials for the right to open all of their schools to in-person learning in mid July, after Bexar County Health Authority Dr. Junda Woo ordered all schools in the county closed through Labor Day.

“We’re just trying to do what’s best for our community,” Benway said at the time. “Boerne is lumped in with San Antonio because of our proximity, but if you’ve ever been to Boerne, it’s like night and day as far as the personalities that are here, as far as people want to have their day to day lives. Beliefs and values are different.”

Less than two weeks later, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott said local school boards, not health authorities, should decide when schools can reopen.

Dr. Woo issued a new health directive last week giving districts recommendations instead of orders to close. Using key public health indicators, it places Bexar County at a high risk red-zone and recommends schools remain closed to in-person learning. Once the risk lowers slightly, Woo said small groups of children could start to attend, if districts kept schools well ventilated and school staff wear eye protection in addition to masks.

With those safety measures in place, and the community spread down to a moderate level, Woo said it would be safe for teachers and therapists to give special education students hands-on support.

“The standard that we use in hospital settings is if the other person is not wearing a mask, but you have a mask and eye protection, then you are protected … even though you have been with them for more than 15 minutes within 6 feet,” Woo said.

Benway declined a second interview and a request for a tour of the safety measures the first week of August, after state officials invalidated the Bexar County closure order. Asked to respond to criticism of the plan to start the year with face-to-face instruction, Benway said that the district continues to believe that parents needed to be given a choice, and pointed out that parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to school can choose remote learning instead.

Walch disagrees with the idea that reopening schools in Boerne is safer than it would be in San Antonio.

“Many of our neighbors work in San Antonio, they shop in San Antonio. So just because we have a town or an ISD called Boerne that has a line on a map does not mean that there are any barriers between the people and how they engage with each other,” said Walch, a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.

Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD, which is also partly located in Bexar County, started its new school year Thursday. But unlike Boerne, SCUCISD opted to start the school year with remote learning only, following the recommendations of San Antonio Metro Health.

Comal ISD, which has five Bexar County schools, is offering in-person learning like Boerne when its school year starts Aug. 24.

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

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