During Town Hall, Health Official Says Outbreaks Inevitable as San Antonio Schools Reopen

click to enlarge During Town Hall, Health Official Says Outbreaks Inevitable as San Antonio Schools Reopen
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San Antonio public health and education leaders spoke in blunt terms about the risks of school reopenings during a virtual town hall on Thursday, with a top Metro Health official warning that COVID-19 outbreaks are inevitable.

The virtual town hall was headlined by Dr. Junda Woo, medical director for Metro Health, and Bonham Academy principal David Nungaray. The pair co-chair the local COVID-19 PreK-12 consultation group.

"Outbreaks will happen," Woo said. "We know that not only from what we've been seeing on the news over the last 24 hours, but ... from my experience working in congregant settings." 

She noted that 81 children are now battling COVID-19 in San Antonio hospitals and that recent studies suggest children can spread the virus to others.

The meeting also included the superintendents of the San Antonio and Northside independent school districts, along with a teacher, a parent and a student. The meeting opened with a short presentation from Woo on the broad outlook for schools heading into the fall, then transitioned into a moderated conversation between the others present.

In her remarks, Woo announced a new criteria for school re-openings driven by three factors: Bexar County's overall COVID-19 positivity rate, the time it's taking for county cases to double and the two-week trend. Schools wouldn't open as long as the positivity rate — the number of tests that come back positive — is above 5%. The rate currently stands at 15%.

By that metric alone, a quick reopening appears to be a long shot. What's more, a recent Metro order says that no San Antonio schools should reopen for in-person learning before September 7.

But what happens after that is anyone's guess. Gov. Greg Abbott has said school districts, not local health officials, should determine their reopening plans and that those undertaking preemptive shutdowns may lose funding.

Woo and the two superintendents said they don't want to see schools closed indefinitely to in-person learning. Students with learning disabilities and a lack of access to technology or safe spaces to study suffer disproportionally from remote instruction, they pointed out.

Woo added that even in the yellow and red zones of Metro Health's new reopening indicator, schools could open to small groups of roughly six students.

In some ways, he safest thing for San Antonio to do would be to wait and watch what happens in other parts of the country, she said. For example, an Indiana junior high had to go into its emergency protocol last week when a student tested positive for COVID-19 on the first day of school.

"We're going to know the answer in four to six weeks to this question [of] how dangerous it is or is not," Woo said.

During the town hall, teacher Natalie Clifford, Jefferson High School senior Alejo Peña Soto and his mother Selena Peña all voiced concerns about the safety of in-person schooling during the pandemic.

Clifford highlighted the death of Melissa Martinez, a kindergarten teacher at Will Rogers Academy who died Wednesday from the virus. Clifford said the case shows that a quick reopening is unsafe for teachers and staff, no matter how much they'd like to be back in the classroom.

Teachers in San Antonio and across the state have been organizing in advance of the start of the school year, with some resigning and others threatening to strike over reopening plans.

Some of the thousands of community members watching the town hall remotely posed questions at the end of the event, which ranged from a query about how school districts will be notified of positive tests to whether students can sit with their friends at lunch.

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