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Education

COVID-19 Transmission Spiked In San Antonio School Districts Before Winter Break

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Boerne ISD

San Antonio school districts reported a record number of new coronavirus cases during the two weeks leading up to winter break, jumping from just over 2,000 cases on Dec. 6 to almost 3,400 by Dec. 20.

The spike was somewhat expected, due to a surge in cases in the wider community. Less expected, however, was a rise in the number of cases districts said were transmitted at school.

When the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District recommended families return to virtual instruction on Dec. 8, school leaders pointed to their low on-campus transmission rates as evidence that their schools remained safe.

But at the same time they were making that point, the number of on-campus transmissions occurring in their schools shot up. Bexar County’s 15 school districts reported over half of the semester’s on-campus transmissions in the two weeks before closing for winter break.

On Dec. 6, the districts reported 12 campuses with at least one on-campus transmission sometime during the semester, with 54 total on-campus transmissions. By the time the districts closed for winter break on Dec. 20, there were 23 campuses with at least one-on-campus transmission, with 122 total on-campus transmissions.

The number of on-campus transmissions reported by schools continues to be a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of students and school staff that tested positive for the coronavirus, but the increase in on-campus transmissions during the final weeks of the semester represent a break in the pattern.

Three San Antonio high schools in particular stood out, reporting at least five new on-campus transmissions just before winter break.

Harlan High School had 13 new on-campus transmissions during the week that ended Dec. 13, Brandeis High School had eight, and Madison High School had five. Harlan reported another seven on-campus transmissions the following week.

The principals of Harlan and Brandeis declined to be interviewed about the outbreaks, but told Northside Independent School District spokesperson Barry Perez the cases were connected to team sports.

“Student transmissions centered around several athletic groups,” Perez said in an email submitted on behalf of Harlan’s principal. “Most of the staff cases were either athletic coaches or other campus staff members who contracted the virus from a spouse or family member not associated with the school. The campus also had two bus drivers who drove students to the school that tested positive.”

North East ISD spokesperson Aubrey Chancellor said the on-campus transmissions at Madison High School were also connected to team sports, specifically basketball. North East paused basketball practices and games district-wide until January due to the number of cases connected to the sport.

“While we are not seeing spread in classrooms, there is an added risk with extra curriculars, as was the case at Madison,” Chancellor said in an email.

Metro Health Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo also pointed to team sports as the source of several school outbreaks in Bexar County. Metro Health collects and records school-related infections independently from school districts.

According to Woo, three of the 10 school outbreaks recorded by Metro Health this fall were caused by athletics: one from basketball, one from volleyball and one from football.

“The majority of transmissions (in local schools) are from incorrect or inconsistent use of masks or from not masking. And mealtimes continue to be an issue just like they are in all workplaces,” Woo said. “We've really got to be careful when we are inherently not wearing a mask because we're eating.”

Why Metro Health’s School Infection Count Differs From What Districts Self-Report

Metro Health reported seven school outbreaks prior to Dec. 8, adding three more by the end of the month. Woo said her data was different from the data submitted to the state because it has been cleaned and investigated by her agency.

“The schools are reporting that information to (the Texas Education Agency) on the day that they received that information, whereas what we're doing is going back and charting, ‘OK, what day did this person have symptoms? Or what day did they test positive?’ Which is a more accurate way,” Woo said.

Metro Health doesn’t include a case in its school case count unless it has been confirmed by a lab and investigators have determined that the person was infectious while on campus.

As of Jan. 12, the agency has recorded 1,940 cases where the person was infectious during the time period they were at a Bexar County public or private K-12 school.

Woo said the rise in coronavirus cases in Bexar County schools later in the semester was partly caused by an increase in the number of people on campus, as well as an increase in the number of cases in the community. But she said it was possible the rise in cases were in part due to COVID fatigue and the new variant.

“Everybody knows what we're supposed to be doing, but (the challenge is) getting everybody to do it,” Woo said. “It reminds me of when alarms go off all the time (in the hospital). Sometimes you don't pay attention, because an alarm goes off all the time. But you need to still pay attention.”

What Does The Research Say?

Over the course of the pandemic there have been numerous debates about the merits of in-person learning compared to the risk of becoming infected at school.

Families and educators have been inundated with reports and expert opinions that have shifted as scientists continue to learn more about the virus and its long-term effects.

Limited evidence of schools contributing to community spread when coronavirus levels were low led some experts to conclude earlier on that schools could safely remain open. However, two recent research studies have found that schools may increase community spread if they are open when the level of coronavirus in the community is high.

Texas public schools report coronavirus data to the state weekly. Data on the first week after winter break is expected to be available late Friday.

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