Late Summer and early Fall have always been bittersweet seasons for public school children. As the Summer break nears an end most kids are unhappy that the long days of Summer are almost behind them but excited about the prospects a new school year brings. With the threat of a new variant of COVID looming ahead of them, this school year may appear more threatening to children and parents than any they have faced in the past.
In May of this year, Governor Abbott announced that June 4 would be the last day that any school district or any other public entity could require students and employees to wear masks. Over the Summer little was mentioned about the Governor’s order, but as the beginning of school approaches and the threat of the Delta variant grows, parents and school officials are feeling much more reluctant to put large numbers of school children together without protection.
“I am absolutely scared to death,” said Lindsey Contreras, a parent whose oldest child attends school in Allen ISD. “I feel like a trapped animal that can’t do anything to protect her babies,” Contreras said. “I would really prefer for [the school district] to offer virtual learning again.”
But Texas lawmakers did not pass legislation that would have funded remote learning in schools, and many districts canceled plans to offer virtual learning. That means classrooms will be more full this year, limiting the ability to practice social distancing.
Teachers seem to have similar concerns about the spread of COVID without a mask mandate. Aaron Phillips, a second-grade teacher in the Amarillo ISD expressed his concerns. “More bodies in the room increases the likelihood that somebody might be sick with something, and so that’s just a potential risk while this deadly contagion is still spreading in our community,” he said. “It’s worrisome, especially when some families might be telling their kids, ‘Oh it’s just a cold.’
With these concerns from parents and teachers, school districts are scrambling to make the best of a bad situation. Unwilling to defy the Governor’s executive order, most districts are encouraging the wearing of masks while not explicitly requiring it. They are also suggesting frequent hand sanitization and social distancing when possible but none of this can be required.
In a recent survey, 78% of those surveyed in the Texas American Federation of Teachers (TAFT) said that the Governor should allow school districts to mandate masks. “The information about this Delta variant is not good at all, and as we know, our elementary-aged students are not vaccinated yet,” said Chrisdya Houston, an Alliance-AFT member, and Dallas ISD teacher. “Banning local governments from being able to institute a much-needed mask mandate endangers our lives and poses increasing risks to all of those in our community.”
This comes on the heels of a recent release from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that indicated that vaccinated people wear masks indoors again in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging and that everyone in K-12 schools wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
But the Texas Governor is adamant, as late as August 4 he reiterated that “lockdowns are wrong during the course of a pandemic” and that “there will not be any government-imposed shutdowns or mask mandates” in Texas. In his speech he mentioned that Texas has a larger economy than Russia and “that makes me more powerful than Putin.”
Regardless of how powerful Governor Abbott may feel, there are still many people that are concerned about his mask mandate. As Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) President Ovidia Molina said, “Educators are eager to return to the classroom, but the pandemic is still dangerous. With COVID-19 cases increasing again and many people still unvaccinated, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that everyone older than 2 wear a mask when they go back to school. Children younger than 12 have not yet been approved for the COVID vaccine.
If Gov. Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators, and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools.”