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'It's Just So Unfair': San Antonio ISD Superintendent Says Push For Virtual Learning Hurts Students Of Color

Beacon Hills Elementary teacher  Joann Chambers reads a book to her dual language preschool class May 23, 2019.
File Photo |Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
Beacon Hills Elementary teacher Joann Chambers reads a book to her dual language preschool class in May 2019. Beacon Hills, like most SAISD schools, is predominantly Hispanic and low income.

Pedro Martinez, the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, said it is “hypocritical” and “cruel” to tell families in his district to return to remote instruction. He said his schools are safe, and the pandemic has exacerbated the inequities his students already faced.

After the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District recommended parents pull their children out of in-person learning until the surge in coronavirus cases slows down, school leaders across Bexar County insisted their schools remained safe.

Texas Public Radio Education Reporter Camille Phillips spoke to Martinez to find out why he thinks schools in his district are safe, and why he believes it’s important for his students to attend class in person.


Here is the conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Camille Phillips: I know that there are regulations in place from the Texas Education Agency that limit your ability to go to 100% remote. I'm wondering if that's the only reason why you are staying open or if there are other factors involved.

Superintendent Pedro Martinez: We've had cases; there's no question about that. And as cases have (gone) up in the community, we have seen some bump up in cases in our schools. But we have seen — and this is since spring break — we’ve seen little evidence of any transmission in any of our schools.

We're doing COVID testing across the majority of our schools. We have a partnership with Community Labs (to test) our high schools, middle schools, all of our (K-8) academies and some of our elementary schools in the zip codes (at highest risk for COVID-19).

We're testing everybody: any child who's in person; all staff. It's all voluntary, but the (positive) results we're getting right now are well below 1%.

The other thing is that we're now at about 30%, on average, across the district, of children in person. We're one of the lowest across the region. We were one of the most conservative; we're still reinforcing social distancing. Most of my colleagues have stopped enforcing social distancing.

We are still being very cautious. And I think it's prudent for us to be cautious. I don't see the need for us to go remote. I don't see that. Because we're not seeing the risks at the school level.

We're doing all of our own contact tracing: it's all family events, it's community events where (transmission) is occurring; it's not in our schools.

Courtesy SAISD
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez

Phillips: Are there academic concerns involved with staying in person as well?

Martinez: We've been able to really manage the health risk issues quite a bit, considering that, you know, we're all in this global pandemic. But now the risks are really shifting towards academics. I'm seeing children that are disengaged, and seeing many of our students that just are struggling academically. And teachers are working 12 hours a day reaching out to them trying to work with their parents.

Some of our students are working, because their parents have lost their jobs. We're seeing examples of families who have been evicted and the families are having to live together — multiple families in one small (apartment). And the children have shared with us they just can't learn at home.

Right now, there's a lot of anxiety, there's a lot of fear. It's very understandable, but at the same time, we also can't have our children have a year lost in academics. They're not going to get that back. And it's going to be that much more difficult for our teachers to really help our children accelerate their learning.

(Research is) very consistent: that it takes years, or maybe, in some cases, (they don't) ever recover.

We have to understand that for many of these children in poverty, academics — their education — is their lifeline. It's their lifeline to social mobility; for economic mobility.

(SAISD families are) getting hit multiple times. Their children are not in school, but yet they're getting still overly affected by this virus in terms of their health.

They're being affected economically, with many of them losing their jobs or their hours being cut. And now you add a third, with the academics of their children being affected.

I just think it's just so unfair. And guess who's in school? It's mostly our middle class white families. They have the means to be able to support their children at home, and yet where are their children? So again, I just think it's very sad. I think it's tragic, what's happening to our communities right now. They're being destroyed.

It's just, I'm sorry, it's very hypocritical for some of these groups to continue to push for online instruction. It's not effective for the majority of our children; despite how hard our teachers work. It has nothing to do with what teachers are not doing. They're working really hard, and it still doesn't work.

Phillips: You were talking about (how) high-poverty communities of color — Black and Brown — are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. (How) more families in those communities in San Antonio and across the country are having family members become infected and die. So there are reasonable reasons why families are afraid to expose their kids. But also you're talking about how it's more damaging for them academically, too. It's a catch-22.

Martinez: They're basically being scared to keep (their) children at home, right? Meanwhile, white middle class families, upper class families, they have their children in school, and they're not getting a higher rate of transmission. If the transmission rates were much higher for those families who had their children in school, then you would say, ‘Okay, maybe there's a connection.’ But there is no connection. And yet, the families are getting scared.

People are telling them, ‘Look, don't send your children to school. They're going to die; you're going to die.’ They're already getting ravaged by this pandemic already. So I just, again, I just think it's just very cruel.

This pandemic has been so punishing to our families, in ways that I think very few people are really fully appreciating because for a lot of our community that's professionals, it's an inconvenience for them. They can't travel; some of them can't see their families.

For families that live in poverty, they already had very little, and now they have even less. And so I just think it's important for us to ground ourselves.

It's ironic that (the) stock market is at all time highs, homeowners have had the most wealth ever in our nation's history, and yet our communities are being ravaged by this pandemic. It's just, the extremes are wider than ever. And I just think it's important for people to acknowledge that and to try to figure out how to do something about it.

TPR asked SAISD for clarification on what groups and people Martinez was referring to when he said it was “hypocritical for some of these groups to continue to push for online instruction” and “cruel” for “people” to tell SAISD families it wasn’t safe to learn in person.

SAISD spokesperson Vanessa Barry said Martinez was not referring to Metro Health. “His comment was generally referring to those who continue to say schools are not safe and are not concerned with the continued hardships so many of our students are experiencing trying to learn remotely,” Barry said in an email.

Bexar County Health Authority Dr. Junda Woo has acknowledged that Texas Education Agency guidelines make it difficult for public schools to return to remote instruction for all students. As an alternative, she recommended districts test 25% of staff for the coronavirus weekly until the region’s risk level declines, and limit in-person instruction to at-risk students. Barry and Martinez say their testing levels follow that recommendation.

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