Trustees for the Northside Independent School District have approved a gradual school reopening plan that prioritizes students with the greatest need.
Northside could begin implementing the plan as soon as Sept. 8, two weeks after the start of the school year. The district will begin classes remotely on Monday.
“We’ve been saying for a long time now that we wanted the reopening of our buildings to happen in a way that was mindful of local public health metrics,” Northside Superintendent Brian Woods told trustees Tuesday.
“We have taken (San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s school reopening recommendations) and tried to ‘school it up,’ if you will, and design a system that would allow us to operate our schools with an eye towards those metrics.”
North East and San Antonio ISDs are also planning phased-in returns to the classroom.
Northside’s reopening plan sets classroom capacity limits and safety protocols based on San Antonio’s current coronavirus metrics, increasing capacity and relaxing protocols as the risk of coronavirus declines.
Depending on interest and the space available, high-need special education students in self-contained settings will be offered the opportunity for face-to-face instruction first, followed by students in three other groups.
English Language Learners and early childhood students will be in the second group, or tier, and students who are at risk academically will be in the third. Once those three groups have returned, the remaining students interested in face-to-face instruction will be brought in as space allows.
Northside spokesman Barry Perez said the number of students in each tier returning to the classroom will likely vary from campus to campus, depending on enrollment and the number of students interested in returning at each school.
Less than 30% of the district’s students have requested in-person learning during the first grading period. Another 12% haven’t indicated a preference.
Metro Health’s reopening indicator is based on three metrics: Bexar County’s positivity rate, doubling time and the two-week trend in daily case numbers. Northside’s plan considers those three metrics, plus how much strain the region’s hospitals are under, measured by the STRAC Health System Stress Score.
Jennifer Krueger, Northside’s director of health services, said the district decided it was important to consider the stress score because it’s San Antonio’s largest district.
“We are very large and represent a very large portion of the county population, and so the stress on the health system is very relevant when we want to be planning for the safety of our families and staff members,” Krueger said.
When Bexar County’s public health metrics fall in Northside’s red Level 4 Critical stage, all students will be in virtual learning, as recommended during Metro Health’s school reopening red zone.
In the orange Level 3 Substantial stage, the district will allow up to six students per class; in the yellow Level 2 Moderate stage, Northside will allow up to 10.
While Metro Health is averaging the risk level of all three of its reopening metrics, Northside only requires two of its four benchmarks be met in order to move from Critical to Substantial and from Substantial to Moderate.
Based on those criteria, Bexar County currently falls in the moderate yellow level because the number of daily cases is trending down, the doubling time is 40 days, and the health system stress score is below the midpoint of the high range.
However, Perez said the district will start at the orange Substantial level and slowly add more students, even if the public health trends stay positive after Labor Day.
“Could we (go straight to yellow based on our plan)? Yes. Would we? No,” Perez said.
Woods compared Northside’s approach to reopening to “opening a valve rather than flipping a light switch.”
“We want to move slowly between the tiers (of students) so as not to move too quickly and make a mistake,” Woods said.
Woods and Krueger said Northside will wait a week or two before moving to a new level and increasing classroom capacity, so that parents can be notified.
“We’ve purposely chosen metrics that need trend data, and so, all of these are at least a week trend if not a 14-day trend before we would make a change,” Woods said. “Once we have students back in the building, we don’t want to have to switch back and forth unless we have to.”
Northside’s green Level 1, indicating minimal risk, has more stringent requirements than its higher levels. All four public health metric benchmarks must be met for 14 consecutive days, including a positivity rate less than 5% and a health system stress score in the normal range.
Once in the green level, limits on classroom size will be removed as long as students can still be spaced 6 feet apart. Limits on the size of athletics and fine arts meetings will also be eliminated.
Northside may revise its reopening plan as the public health situation changes. Woods told trustees the plan “won’t be set in stone” and that he may come back to the board to approve changes if needed.
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