Several charter networks and nine of the 15 school districts based in Bexar County reopen their schools to in-person instruction Tuesday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.
While final numbers are not yet settled, up to 20% of the county’s students are headed back in the classroom, according to district plans and estimates.
Most of the county’s more than 350,000 students are still learning from home, however. Thousands of families have opted to stay in virtual classes, and most of the districts that reopened are phasing in a return to face-to-face lessons.
Parents that decided to send their children back to campus had to weigh their children’s educational needs against lingering health concerns.
Single mom Tracy Sinha originally selected virtual learning for her three school-aged children.
“I felt like it was the safest option for us and the safest option for the teachers,” Sinha said Friday during a slight lull in the chaos of simultaneous Zoom lessons.
Her 15-year-old daughter Meadow streamed her chemistry class, while Emerson, 13, and Finnigin, 8, watched Angry Bird cartoons on their lunch break. Her toddler, Rama, clamored to get past the child-safety gate into the kitchen.
The first week of school this fall, Sinha said it quickly became clear that distance learning wasn’t working for Finnigin, who is autistic and language-delayed.
“We have spent most of his life trying to help him find his voice, and whenever he's getting on these zoom calls and trying to connect with his teachers, he's missing a core element of his communication, which is nonverbal,” Sinha said.
So when Finnigin’s teacher told Sinha the Northside Independent School District is starting out with just English Learners and special education students in self-contained settings, she changed her mind.
“I really struggled with this decision. This was one of the most agonizing decisions (I’ve ever) made, because I did pick virtual,” Sinha said. “I look at my middle schooler and my high schooler, and yes, they would prefer to be in person. But there isn’t as much need as there is with my eight-year-old. He needs it.”
Emerson is also autistic and in a special education program, but Sinha said he has adapted to distance learning more easily.
Sinha said she hopes that going back to school will help Finnigin adjust to the technology he needs for distance learning, in case his school gets a coronavirus outbreak and he has to go back to learning from home.
San Antonio’s five largest districts, including Northside, are phasing in face-to-face instruction. Most are starting with five or six students per class this week, as recommended by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
But Alamo Heights, East Central, Somerset and a few charter networks are bringing in more students than Metro Health currently considers safe.
Alamo Heights Superintendent Dana Bashara said her district is completing its transition to in-person instruction more quickly than other districts because parents want it and because Alamo Heights already brought in 30 high-need special education students three weeks ago.
“We've had three weeks of phase-in, (and) we have an additional two weeks that are coming up,” Bashara said, adding that Bexar County Medical Authority Dr. Junda Woo has looked at her district’s safety plan.
“(The six-student classroom cap) is not a mandate; it's a recommendation,” Bashara said. “I have been carefully watching the metrics and feel like by the time, you know, we're ready to bring the 65–67% back that wants to be back, we should be in a good place.”
Alamo Heights is giving each grade two or three days with half-full classrooms to learn safety protocols, but will have full classes in some grades by Sept. 14 and plans to complete its phase-in by Sept. 21.
East Central ISD, meanwhile, is bringing back all of the nearly 50% of students who requested in-person instruction. Students will attend class on alternating days until district officials decide it’s safe for all students to be on campus at once.
“There are many families out there within our district (where) both parents work, or it's a single parent, and that parent works. And they have very limited ways of providing for child care for their child,” East Central spokesperson Brandon Oliver said.
Oliver said East Central will maintain social distancing and keep building occupancy at no more than 10%, even though its schools plan to have 10–15 students per class. According to numbers provided by the district, one elementary school will have nearly 40% of students on campus each day.
Somerset ISD, on the far southern edge of Bexar County, also plans to bring back all students who have requested it. Superintendent Saul Hinojosa said only 30% of elementary students and 40% of secondary students want face-to-face instruction, a small enough percentage to allow the district to maintain social distancing.
“We're a smaller school district,” Hinojosa said. “You're talking about eight to 10 kids in the classroom and no more than 12 at the secondary level. We feel that's an extremely manageable number for us. Had it got any higher, we might have had to put some additional guidelines in.”
Judson art teacher Mariana Anderson said her nine-year-old daughter Azlin will also likely have 11 or 12 classmates at Founders Classical Academy in Schertz. Still, Anderson said she and her daughter are excited for her to get back to school.
“She was just getting really terrible grades (in distance learning),” Anderson said. “I just realized this is not how she learned. She does better in front of a teacher.”
Anderson is teaching virtual lessons on campus at Judson, leaving her husband to juggle working from home and helping Azlin alone.
“We just had to make the tough decision for her education and also because job-wise we don't necessarily have a choice,” Anderson said.
Anderson said she’s not too worried about the coronavirus, though, because she, her daughter and her husband have good immune systems.
“We do have family members that I would worry about. My father-in-law already said once she starts going to school, he's not comfortable with coming around, which we understand,” Anderson said. “He's older, and he does have some diabetes and health-related issues like that.”
Anderson said she hopes her daughter will start loving school again once she’s back in the classroom, but she’s a bit worried about how Azlin will adjust to wearing a mask all day.
North East teacher Alexandria Simmons has spent the past week helping her students make the adjustment and said setting out clear expectations is especially important this year.
“Each day has gotten a little easier,” said Simmons, who teaches first grade at Castle Hills Elementary. Castle Hills started in-person instruction earlier than the rest of the district because it is a year-round campus.
“Kids come to school with the memory of what school used to be, and so they want to be close with their friends,” Simmons said. “They want to stay one behind the other in the lines in the hallways, and then in the cafeterias. They want to play tag at recess. And we just really have to set up structures to remind them that we are six feet apart from one another.”
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