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San Antonio school districts experience hundreds of absent staff on first day back, teacher's union calls for mask mandate

District officials with NISD and NEISD stressed the absences are not solely COVID-19 related, although the big concern is reducing the virus' spread.

SAN ANTONIO — Bexar County school districts returned from winter break with more than a thousand absent staff during a time where the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is continuing to spread.

"Today, what we know is that we have right under 1,300 staff members who are out, who have called in for some reason. Some of those, no doubt, could be COVID related,” said Barry Perez, executive director of communications for Northside Independent School District.

Perez noted 926 of the 1,260 absences are believed to be teacher positions that require a substitute.

Perez said on an average day the substitute teacher fill rate is 80% but on Monday the fill rate was 58%.

“Whether it’s other individual teachers from that campus, whether it’s combining classrooms, there are many things that campuses can do to make sure that those students, that those classes are indeed covered,” Perez said.

The Northside ISD teacher’s union is calling on district leadership to consider a temporary mask mandate due to rising coronavirus cases.

In December, the Fifth Circuit Court reinstated Governor Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. San Antonio and Edgewood ISDs continue to require mask mandates despite the ruling.

“While encouraging masking is -- can somewhat be commended, a mandate is really going to be where we really see that the mitigation strategies are going to be used with fidelity,” said Melina Espiritu-Azocar, lead organizer with Northside AFT (American Federation of Teachers).

One of the deeper concerns expressed by union members is having enough certified substitute teachers to take place of the absence positions.

“Because then their classes become larger, it becomes harder to ensure that there’s spacing between students and without a mask mandate in place, some students have masks and some students don’t,” Espiritu-Azocar said.

North East Independent School District also resumed in-person learning with about 700 absent staff, some of which are from vacant positions, according to Aubrey Mika Chancellor, the district’s executive director of communications.

“We do know that almost 400 of our teachers have put in their reasoning today for being absent as personal or family illness,” Chancellor said.

NEISD, like many other districts in Bexar County, coordinates with Metro Health to provide vaccine clinics and COVID testing opportunities.

Chancellor said NEISD is prepared with ample supply of COVID-19 tests.

“Our health services department was very forward thinking. They ordered hundreds of thousands of tests months and months ago so we’re looking good on our supply and of course as you can imagine, there are many, many, people who have been coming every day in order to get tested.”

NEISD and NISD encourage the use of face masks at all campuses and district facilities. 

NEISD offers free rapid COVID-19 testing at the NEISD Sports Park (12001 Wetmore Road)  Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

NISD has free COVID-19 testing at Farris Stadium (8400 North Loop 1604 W) and Inselmann Field at the Harding Athletic Complex (7001 Culebra Rd). Appointments are required. 

In a letter to staff and families, NISD Superintendent Dr. Brian Woods emphasized the importance for families to consider getting vaccinated. 

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