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‘Disrespectful’ And ‘Disingenuous’: San Antonio ISD Teachers Union Responds To Superintendent

North East Education Association vice president Laura Riggs speaks at a car caravan protest against teacher returning to schools during th COVID-19 pandemic.
File Photo |Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
The San Antonio Alliance and other local teacher groups advocated for a more cautious approach to school reopening since the summer.

The union that represents teachers at the San Antonio Independent School District disagreed with recent comments made by Superintendent Pedro Martinez.

In an interview with TPR, Martinez said it was “hypocritical” and “cruel” to tell families in his district to return to remote instruction because the pandemic exacerbated the inequities his students already faced.

“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,” Martinez said.

When Bexar County’s positivity rate shot up above 15% two weeks ago, San Antonio Metropolitan Health recommended parents pull their kids out of in-person learning.

Local district leaders, however, insisted their schools remained safe. Martinez said the positivity rate in SAISD was less than 1%, and anyone who suggested his schools weren’t safe was being unfair to his students, who are mostly Hispanic and low income.

“People are telling them, ‘Look, don't send your children to school, they're going to die, you're going to die.’ And they're already getting ravaged by this pandemic,” Martinez said. “I just think it's just very cruel.”

The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel have advocated for a more cautious approach to schools reopening since summer.

Alliance Executive Council Member Luke Amphlett said he thought the superintendent’s comments were directed at them.

“It's incredibly frustrating, because I think it's a really disingenuous framing of our position,” he said. “The truth is that we are in good faith engaging with the same evidence and reaching different conclusions because things are complicated.”

Many Black and Latino families across the country chose remote instruction over in-person learning this year. Black and Latino communities have also suffered a disproportionately high death toll from COVID-19.

Amphlett said it was disrespectful to assume SAISD families can’t look at the evidence and decide for themselves what’s best for their children.

“It’s portrayed as a product of misinformation and fear, but I think it’s a set of really rational determinations which are very intelligently reached by a really large majority of our families,” he explained.

“They know absolutely what the limitations of virtual instruction are, and yet they're choosing it,” Amphlett added. “I think they understand … that there's more to this conversation than some really superficial and simplistic conception of education, which centers around where a student needs to be at a specific grade level.”

Martinez said SAISD students struggled in remote learning and needed to know their schools were safe so they wouldn’t fall so far behind they couldn’t catch up.

“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,” Martinez said.

Amphlett agreed that remote learning wasn’t ideal but he argued that health and safety concerns should take priority. He said the superintendent’s position “sounds exactly like what Republican politicians in Austin keep talking about, but kind of dressed in the trappings of progressive politics.”

TPR asked SAISD to clarify to which groups or people Martinez had referred 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’s comments were not about Metro Health, which led the Alliance to believe his comments were instead directed at them.

“There's kind of a strange differentiation,” Amphlett said, “even though what we're saying is exactly what the health leaders in the city are saying.”

Barry did not mention the Alliance by name. She said in an email that the superintendent’s comments were “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.”

The superintendent plans to hold a town hall in early January to show families data that he believes proves students and teachers aren’t getting infected at school.

Amphlett believed the data used to draw that conclusion was incomplete because the district doesn’t count close contact as exposure if one of those individuals wore a mask.

He also questioned the legitimacy of the district’s positivity rate. The district provides testing, but it is voluntary, and Amphlett said it is unclear how many people take advantage of it.

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.