By the second week of August, many school districts around San Antonio will be flinging their doors wide open, though the scenes inside will look very different.
After schools remained closed or partially closed due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and thousands of children elected to continue remote learning, lawmakers have mandated a wholesale return to classrooms.
On July 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all kindergarten through 12th-grade schools resume in-person learning, with elementary school children wearing masks and staying 3 feet apart to stay safe.
In high schools and middle schools, with universal masking, students also should stay 3 feet apart, or 6 feet in communities with high transmission rates, the CDC said.
However, Gov. Greg Abbott in May issued an order that prohibited state governmental entities including schools from mandating face masks, leading local districts to implement various procedures.
Federal, state and local officials all advocate full vaccinations for eligible ages.
Because the only vaccinations for children currently are for ages 12 and over, the CDC recommends that schools serving younger students continue to “implement layered protection strategies.”
In mid-July, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all teachers, staff and students wear face masks. The academy reasoned that universal masking was easier to carry out than requiring face coverings for only the unvaccinated.
As of press time, the Texas Education Agency had not released any additional updated COVID-19 requirements for the opening of schools.
Funded, full-time remote learning for districts is no longer an option with the death of House Bill 1468 in the Legislature. It would have allowed students with compromised immune systems or parents on the fence about vaccines for their children the option to keep learning from home by continuing to provide virtual-instruction resources to public school districts.
The Senate passed the bill, but when House Democrats broke quorum to kill a disputed elections measure, HB 1468 lost traction.
The legislation would have made it possible for schools to continue offering virtual learning for up to 10% of the student body without a loss of state funding.
Because funding for public education in the state is based on average daily attendance, TEA authorized a temporary waiver that said remote-learning students could be counted to qualify for funding as though they were in school.
The expiration of the waiver means most Texas districts can’t afford remote-learning programs without state help.
As when the pandemic began in March 2020 and classes were shuttered, many schools are in new territory with the start of the 2021-2022 academic year.
In the North East Independent School District, letters were sent to parents and community members informing them virtual learning would cease due to the failure of HB 1468 to pass.
Otherwise, it appears that life at NEISD is getting back to normal.
“On May 18, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that prohibited governmental entities in Texas from requiring or mandating mask wearing after June 4,” said Aubrey Chancellor, an NEISD spokeswoman. Also, according to officials, there will be hand-sanitizing stations in classrooms, water fountains will be closed, and letters will still be sent home if a student tests positive for COVID-19. Quarantining for pupils is not required.
“We continue to focus on what the district can control,” Superintendent Sean Maika said in a statement.
The Harlandale Independent School District is implementing the CDC’s multipronged approach to protect students from COVID.
All students will attend in person, said spokeswoman Mariana Veraza Bravo.
“All students will have the option to wear face masks or face shields but will not be required to,” Bravo said. “(Gov. Greg Abbott) has made it illegal for schools to mandate mask wearing. We will also continue monitoring the cleanliness of the school and encourage hand washing and using hand sanitizer.”
According to Bravo, “For all students over 12 years old and staff, we are highly recommending being vaccinated. We have hosted many vaccination clinics in the district. Finally, we will have weekly COVID testing available for students who would like to be tested.”
Many private schools are implementing procedures that mirror the public-education sector.
Antonian College Preparatory High School in Castle Hills, for example, is not requiring face masks if students are vaccinated.
“We continue to follow the guidance of the (Archdiocese of San Antonio) and CDC and state guidelines,” said Mason Finch, director of communications. “If you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask indoors; but if you’re not vaccinated, you need to wear a mask indoors.”
Finch added, “In terms of capacity, we’re returning to normal operations as much as we can be. All of the students can be back on campus and parents are welcome to come on campus. We’re going back to normal and opening up 100%.”
Parents concerned about children with health issues can talk to the school about an individual plan for students on a case-by-case basis, Finch said.
In addition, Antonian will be continuing many of the COVID protocols that became normal during the height of the pandemic.
“Even though we are going back to that normalcy before COVID, we’re keeping our hand sanitizations in place and keeping cleaning protocols in place between classes,” Finch said. “We’ll continue to sanitize and clean throughout the day, as well as enforce proper handwashing protocols. We’re definitely still keeping that in mind.”
Still, other private and charter schools remain cautious with the ever-changing COVID landscape.
All Texas KIPP public charter schools — or Knowledge is Power Program — will receive updated safety protocols as campuses get ready to open, said Saki Indakwa, executive communications manager.