A student runs through the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary.
Following guidance from the Texas Education Agency, schools will be open five days a week for in-person learning should the parents choose. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Students attending public schools in Bexar County this fall will be required to wear face coverings, but schools won’t have to screen students for coronavirus symptoms, according to the Texas Education Agency’s long-awaited public health guidance issued Tuesday for reopening schools.

In offering on-campus classes, schools must comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that requires residents in counties with 20 or more coronavirus cases to wear masks. Abbott’s order does not apply to children younger than age 10, and the state education agency’s guidance did not specifically address masks for younger students. The guidance permits districts to require masks for students where developmentally appropriate.

Should Abbott’s order be rescinded before school starts, the TEA will allow school systems to require the use of masks or face shields for adults or students.

In a conference call with superintendents, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath outlined numerous procedures for schools to follow in order to safely reopen campuses statewide to students. But he said widespread closure orders were not out of question if local health conditions warranted them.

The TEA recommended students practice social distancing when feasible, with desks placed a minimum of six feet apart.

“This is far more practical in secondary settings than in elementary settings,” Morath said.

Teachers and staff must screen themselves for symptoms before coming onto campus, according to the new TEA document. And while the state agency recommended against schools regularly performing temperature checks on students without symptoms, it permitted schools to do so if they chose.

If there is a confirmed coronavirus case at a campus, the school system will be required to notify the local health authority, close off the area where the person spent time, and notify teachers, staff, and families of the case, Morath said.

The State agency also encouraged schools to have students gather outside rather than inside when possible because of the reduced risk of viral spread outdoors. Schools can continue offering extracurricular activities.

The nine-page document outlines other guidelines schools can follow to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus among students, families, and school staff.

“There will almost certainly be situations that necessitate temporary school closure due to positive COVID-19 cases in schools,” the guidance states. “Parents, educators, and school administrators should be prepared for this in the event that it occurs, while actively working to prevent it through prevention and mitigation practices.”

San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez wasn’t surprised to hear the limitations and permissions under the new guidance.

“The commissioner has been very consistent, they’re going to require all schools to be open as long as parents want to come in and bring their children in person,” Martinez said. “A lot of my colleagues don’t want to hear that, the [teachers] union doesn’t want to hear that, but …. today he clarified that again.”

SAISD will begin working with principals and their staff members to implement the details of the TEA’s policy, he added.

To focus attention on reopening schools for Aug. 10 and because of the current local health conditions, the district won’t bring students back to campus in late July as had been planned, Martinez said.

Schools must publish a plan they will follow to mitigate the virus’s spread at least one week before the start of on-campus activities and instruction. Parents can choose to send their children to class on-campus or continue instruction virtually; schools will receive the same funding for students. However, Morath emphasized, schools must offer an option for students to learn on-campus five days a week.

The only exception is that the TEA will allow schools to limit on-campus instruction during the first three weeks of the school year to ease the transition process. This limitation might prevent some families who want their children to learn in-person from doing so initially.

“It’s pretty clear that we need to come back to school and be face-to-face all the way [for five days a week] and mitigate all the risk,” said Roland Toscano, superintendent of East Central Independent School District. “Regardless of your community’s comfort level, offering the remote option exclusively, unless there’s some sort of reason to shut down, is not going to be funded.”

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Roland Toscano, Superintendent of Schools.
East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano Credit: Michael Cirlos for the Rivard Report – File Photo

In a poll East Central ISD conducted last week, the district found that just half of district families felt safe returning to school for on-campus instruction in the fall. That is a decrease from a poll taken earlier this summer in which 70 percent of families said they felt in-person class would be safe.

Because balancing a five-day on-campus operation with a strong remote learning method will be a challenge, ECISD won’t offer a hybrid option by which students can alternate between the two when school starts. Instead, the district will develop a hybrid option that can be implemented during emergencies that gives ECISD more flexibility on which vulnerable populations to bring back to campus first.

Under the guidance, school systems can still use buses to transport students to campuses. The state education agency encouraged schools to have students and staff use hand sanitizer upon boarding the bus; open windows to allow outside air circulation; encourage families to drop students off, carpool, or walk their student to campus; and thoroughly clean the bus after each trip.

Federal pressure to reopen campuses

In recent days, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump have advocated strongly for schools to reopen. During a press conference Tuesday before Morath’s call with superintendents, Trump spoke alongside education leaders and elected officials from around the country, many who repeated the message that the country can’t reopen without the country’s schools reopening.

“We’re very much going to put pressure on the governors and everybody else to open the schools,” Trump said.

Earlier in the day, DeVos pushed back against some school district plans to split in-person class schedules to accommodate smaller class sizes. DeVos said schools must be “fully operational” and that anything less would fail students and taxpayers, according to a report from the Associated Press.

This clashes with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this summer that identifies full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events as having the highest risk of spreading the coronavirus. The CDC said small, in-person classes where groups of students stay with the same teacher throughout the school day and don’t mix with others would lower risk.

CDC’s guidance also recommends staff and students, particularly older students, to wear face coverings when feasible and that schools close communal spaces like cafeterias and playgrounds when possible.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its own position in late June, saying school systems should start with the goal of beginning the school year with students physically present for class.

The AAP guidance emphasized that strong evidence exists of the negative impact of school closures on children this spring.

“Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation,” the AAP stated. “This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality.”

Pushback from educators

The TEA guidance comes at a time when coronavirus cases have risen sharply in Texas and in San Antonio, where hospital capacity continues to dwindle. On Friday, local health authorities announced a record one-day number of new coronavirus cases.

In June, TEA officials told school superintendents that districts would be able to get the same amount of funding for students choosing to learn in person and at home, giving districts the option to accommodate families who don’t feel safe having their student return in person.

After the announcement, several school leaders said they would need to survey parents and students to see who would choose which path so they could adjust their staffing plans accordingly. Several leaders also said families likely would not be able to choose until they had an idea of what in-person instruction would look like.

On Tuesday, Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, issued a statement, calling for no schools to reopen until the pandemic has “clearly begun to subside.” Candelaria also called on Abbott to require mask use for students, employees, and visitors and the regular testing of everyone entering the school for COVID-19 symptoms.

Several weeks ago, the San Antonio Coalition on School Reopening – a group comprising San Antonio Independent School District students; educators from SAISD, Northside ISD, Harlandale ISD, South San ISD, and North East ISD; and other organizations – issued a report outlining how they would like to see schools reopen.

The blueprint relies on CDC guidelines and instruction from the American Federation of Teachers, National Educators’ Association, Texas State Teachers Association, and the Alliance to reclaim Our Schools. The document emphasizes that any school reopening plan should include input from educators, families, and community partners.

“We believe that those who are directly impacted should be at the center of decision making,” said Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, at a late June press conference. “Too often, we are the people excluded from decisions being made.”

The coalition said they wanted to see plans that included daily sanitation and disinfection procedures and the elimination of standardized testing. TEA officials said earlier this summer that schools will still be required to administer standardized exams in the coming school year.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.