Texas school leaders found themselves once again at the center of a COVID-19 safety debate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate, but allowed districts to modify their mask policies as they saw fit.
In his announcement on March 2, Abbott said schools may take their lead from the Texas Education Agency. Two days later, the TEA issued an 11-page update on COVID-19 safety guidance, in which it recommended districts continue to enforce masks on campus based on Centers for Disease Control guidelines. However, the TEA updated its guidelines and specified that districts could modify or eliminate mask-related requirements as they saw fit.
Chelsea Baldwin, deputy executive director of the United Educators Association, said the TEA “was not very clear about if they could enforce masks or not.”
The resulting polices resemble the mash-up of virtual versus in-person procedures that districts put into place last year. In Dallas-Fort Worth, districts’ updated mask policies varied widely. Neighboring school districts passed opposing policies, some districts modified their procedures and others pushed off the decision entirely until after spring break.
“It’s bad policy,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s bad public and health policy to leave it up to individual districts or to leave it up to individuals at all.”
Many districts, such as Birdville and Weatherford, tried to base their decisions off of what the community wanted.
However, Capo said public health decisions should not made this way.
“It just then puts the onus back on local school members, who unfortunately are much closer to the emotional side of this argument,” he said. “And they are stuck having to make very tough and hard decisions based on majority will.”
In a news release from Cook Children’s Medical Center, Dr. Marc Mazade, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control, recommended schools in Tarrant County and nearby districts continue to require masks for students and teachers.
“As most people are now aware, more highly transmissible and even some vaccine-resistant COVID-19 strains are gaining a foothold,” Mazade said in the news release. “Now is not the time to relax. Rather it is the time for even more vigilance.”
Cook Children’s recommends that parents continue their family’s prevention methods like masking and social distancing until children are able to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which could happen later this year.
Abbott’s order, and most districts’ subsequent decisions, take effect Wednesday.
Mask Changes in School Districts
The Birdville school board voted Monday night to continue to require masks for teachers and students except for students from pre-K to third grade. The change was based on the TEA’s updated guideline that recommended students younger than 10 years old may not need to wear a mask.
At Monday’s meeting, Communications Officer Mark Thomas read a handful of the 74 public comments the board received about the mask-wearing requirement. Overall, 56 people wanted the mask requirement to remain in place, five asked that it be modified and 13 said masks should be eliminated. The board’s resulting decision was based on TEA and CDC guidelines and those public comments, Thomas said.
“It was just that minor tweak to allow the youngest children in the classroom not to wear a mask,” he said. “There are times where they are still required to wear a mask, like when they’re out in the hallway.”
Other districts did away with the mask requirement entirely.
In a 4-3 vote, Weatherford’s school board voted down a recommendation Monday night to continue to require masks for students and teachers. In a news release about the board’s vote, the district cited survey data it received from the community. Out of 2,940 responses from parents, 58.9 percent said they were in favor of lifting the mask requirement. In a survey to staff, 60.4 percent of the 902 responses were also in favor of eliminating mask enforcement.
The district used that data—along with public comments and COVID-19 case trends—to make their decision, school board president Mike Guest said in the release.
“We hope this decision brings some degree of normalcy back to the classroom,” he said in the statement. “This decision gives parents and staff the right to do what they feel is best for their families.”
Neighboring district Aledo had the opposite approach. The requirement for teachers and students to wear a mask will remain unchanged due to TEA and CDC guidelines. In a letter to parents and teachers, Superintendent Susan Bohn explained the lack of vaccinations for teachers was one of the reasons the district decided to continue using face coverings.
“Some of our teachers and staff have become very ill and required long hospital stays due to this disease,” Bohn said in the letter. “We care about the health and well-being of our teachers, staff and students, and we cannot serve our students and keep our schools open if they are not healthy.”
Arlington, Fort Worth, Crowley, Colleyville, Cedar Hill and Burleson school districts will also continue to require masks. Granbury decided to wait until after spring break to meet about the mask requirement.
Burleson released a detailed statement about the decision on the district website.
The Burleson Public Health Authority told Burleson district leadership the number of positive cases and close contact identifications would change drastically if students and staff did not wear masks, the statement said. In schools without face coverings, a COVID-19 positive student could cause four to six other students in each class to quarantine and switch to virtual instruction. If the unmasked, positive student sneezed or coughed, the entire class might have to quarantine.
“So we ask, which of the two alternatives reduces the risk of students missing out: wearing face coverings, or not?” the statement said. “As we have worked with the Health Authority and obtained a clear picture of a consequence apparently not thought through by TEA, we have come to realize that opting out of TEA’s face-covering requirement elevates the risk of students missing out on this Spring’s events.”
Parents and Teachers Weigh In
As district policies differed, so did the opinions of parents and teachers at those schools.
Some teachers in the UEA support the mask elimination, while a slight majority want mask requirements to remain in place, Baldwin said.
“Our stance is we want schools to be open, and we want people to be working,” Baldwin said. “And we need to do whatever it takes for that to happen. And masks are definitely one way to do that.”
Teachers who oppose mask requirements want the freedom to choose if they wear one or not. But others are worried about getting sick or spreading the virus on to others.
“The ones who want masks want to protect the ones around them and protect themselves,” she said. “Because if they can’t work, they can’t provide for their loved ones as well.”
Many parents expressed similar arguments on both sides.
Lara, a parent of four children at Morgan Mill ISD, said she supported Weatherford’s decision to eliminate mask requirements, and she hopes her district—which is next-door to Weatherford’s—does the same. She believes mask-wearing should be left up to parents to decide what is best for their family. Lara asked that her last name not be used out of fear that her children would be retaliated against for her opinion.
“(Parents) are best suited to make the decision for their family based on their family’s health and immune system,” she said.
Morgan Mill, which has about 111 students, was on spring break on March 9 and will decide what to do about the mask requirement on March 17. If the district does not eliminate the requirement, Lara wants to move her children to Weatherford ISD. She said her children have had rashes or headaches from wearing the masks.
“I worry about the long-term effects of masks, especially in younger children who are developing speech and language,” she said.
Other parents worry that if masks are not required, their children—and the community—will suffer.
Amy Beerwinkle, mother of three children at Weatherford ISD, said she was not surprised by the district’s decision, but she was disappointed.
“I’m sure in the board’s minds, they’re doing what the public wanted,” she said. “But the school board needs to have a broader view of things than doing what is politically popular at the time, and this is one of them.”
She hoped that the district would wait until teachers were vaccinated to remove masks. Instead, she said, the board rushed to undo the mask requirement when the district only had to endure it for a few more months.
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