Bleach Denim

Amid surging COVID risk, school already has started in San Antonio area

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Rachel Leija and Ismahan Abdi sat on the rug in their classroom at Converse Elementary School, laughing cheerfully as they played a math game with a deck of cards.

Ismahan, who was not wearing a mask, said she could “barely breathe” when she did wear one. Rachel, who was masked, said, “My mom doesn’t want me to get sick because we have a little one at home,” referring to her younger sister, less than a year old.

For the two fifth-graders, school started July 26, a lot earlier than usual, and they reveled in the high-energy environment of a classroom full of children for the first time in more than a year. It was like pre-pandemic times, with students once again sharing supplies, working in groups and squirming in their seats.

But only about one in three was wearing a mask.

Hundreds of thousands of Bexar County children will start the school year in person in August — San Antonio Independent School District starts Monday, Aug. 8 — and many of their parents are worried about the still out-of-control coronavirus.

Only a small handful of innovative schools in Bexar County start their school year in July. They adopt year-round or extended-day calendars as a strategy to avoid the learning loss associated with the long summer break.

Now they are bellwethers for the 2021-22 school year, which the pandemic has plunged into uncertainty amid fears that public education has lost its ability to protect students and their families.

A year ago, masks were required at virtually every local school, and many students started the fall semester learning at home. But Gov. Greg Abbott, by executive order, has barred public school districts from mandating masks.

Most schools have abandoned remote learning options due to the state’s inability to fund it without an emergency decree by the governor. And there is no COVID-19 vaccine for those younger than 12.

The resulting tension over how to handle the risk of infection during the latest surge of a deadly pandemic is playing out at Converse Elementary, a Judson ISD campus now embarking on a “year-round” schedule.

A majority of parents at Converse are said to have enough confidence in the school’s safety protocols to send their children to class without masks. Despite their proven effectiveness against virus spread, some consider masks a stifling inconvenience that gets in the way of learning.

Soon, almost every student in Bexar County will be back in a classroom — and without masks, local officials say, they will make the pandemic worse.

Hands tied

In a second grade class at Converse Elementary, 8-year-old Jedediah Campos sat at the back of the room looking at the white board from behind his mask.

“It’s serious now, so my mom told me I have to,” Campos said of the face covering.

Janett Jamie-Nieto holds an apple over Phoenix Englehardt during lunch at Converse Elementary. The Judson ISD school switched to a year-round calendar to counter the learning loss aggravated by the pandemic - and now is among the first to open for the fall as schools lose their ability to reduce risk factors for new infections.

Janett Jamie-Nieto holds an apple over Phoenix Englehardt during lunch at Converse Elementary. The Judson ISD school switched to a year-round calendar to counter the learning loss aggravated by the pandemic — and now is among the first to open for the fall as schools lose their ability to reduce risk factors for new infections.

Jessica Phelps /San Antonio Express-News

He and his classmates all had their own supplies and were sitting at desks spaced three feet apart — in keeping with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — rather than in clusters like in a “normal” year.

Their teacher, Ramona Merriam, led a lesson on identifying different types of coins. She was not wearing a mask, she said, because she was vaccinated and it made it easier to teach, especially reading and phonics.

“I am a little concerned because I don’t want to get sick and I don’t want any of my kids to get sick, but I think if we are just vigilant and just try to keep them as distant as we can, I think it’s good,” Merriam said. “We just try to be real positive and very flexible. That’s our key word for this year: flexible.”

School leaders and teachers are trying to find ways to work around the risk factors and not impede learning, which suffered last year from the challenges of the pandemic. But without the ability to require masks and without remote learning for students who are immunocompromised or have to quarantine, their hands are tied, they said.

Schools like Converse Elementary and Castle Hills Elementary in North East ISD, which also started the school year weeks before most other schools, are “the pioneers,” said Cynthia Davis, principal at Converse.

“The uncertainty with COVID lies in: From week to week, what kinds of changes are we going to make? That is one area of uncertainty that we really have no control over,” she said.

Davis said Converse Elementary does not require parents to notify the school if their child tests positive for the virus.

Last Thursday, the Texas Education Agency released a new public health guidance that said in part: “Parents must ensure they do not send a child to school on campus if the child has COVID-19 symptoms or is test-confirmed with COVID-19.”

The guidance said nothing about a parental obligation to inform the school about a child’s COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test.

Abbott has preached personal responsibility as the key tool for slowing transmission of the coronavirus, but as the school year begins, many parents are skeptical.

“The problem is that sending your kids in person, there’s so much control that you’re relinquishing,” said Sarah Marquez, a substitute teacher in North East ISD whose two young children, including a son with Type 1 diabetes, will start the school year on Aug. 16 — wearing their masks.

“My children’s health is going to be largely in the hands of the people they’re with every day,” she said. “And no child at the elementary level has gotten a vaccination.”

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have sharply criticized Abbott for leaving local officials and school administrators powerless to require basic precautions against the pandemic.

“We’re talking about infecting young children, with the governor saying, ‘You can’t mandate a face mask,’” Wolff said recently. “Schools should be able to do that.”

The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics both issued guidance for schools in July that recommend in-person learning as long as students who aren’t vaccinated wear masks.

Bexar County’s coronavirus test positivity rate has jumped to 20 percent this month after having dropped below 2 percent in the spring. About 10 percent of the beds at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio were occupied by children with COVID-19 in early August, said Dr. Charles Hankins, chief medical officer at Santa Rosa Health Systems and senior vice president of pediatrics at CHRISTUS Health.

Naiyla DeLeon compares crayon sizes with a classmate in her second grade class at Converse Elementary. The Judson ISD school switched to a year-round calendar to counter the learning loss aggravated by the pandemic - and now is among the first to open for the fall as schools lose their ability to reduce risk factors for new infections.

Naiyla DeLeon compares crayon sizes with a classmate in her second grade class at Converse Elementary. The Judson ISD school switched to a year-round calendar to counter the learning loss aggravated by the pandemic — and now is among the first to open for the fall as schools lose their ability to reduce risk factors for new infections.

Jessica Phelps /San Antonio Express-News

Asked why schools are being barred from requiring masks as local case numbers rise, Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary, said by email: