The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released guidance last week that Texas will not require masks in schools and, moreover, individual districts did not have the authority to require masks among students or staff. The guidance also stated that neither contact tracing, nor the quarantine of individuals identified as “close contacts” of someone diagnosed with Covid-19 were required. Some districts, however, have already pushed back.
Released weeks or even days before the 2021-2022 school year begins in the state, and as cases of Covid-19 reach their highest levels since February and continue to rise, TEA’s health guidance on masks was expected by many Texans. It is in keeping with an Executive Order 38, issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in late July, which prohibited local governments from issuing mask mandates in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Guidance on contact tracing and quarantine for close contacts, however, had not been asserted before now.
“School systems are not required to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing,” the statement reads. “If school systems are made aware that a student is a close contact, the school system should notify the student’s parents. Parents of students who are determined to be close contacts of an individual with COVID-19 may opt to keep their students at home during the recommended stay-at-home period.”
TEA justified this decision based on data from the 2020-2021 school year indicating “very low COVID-19 transmission rates in a classroom setting and data demonstrating lower transmission rates among children than adults.” This data was collected during high rates of masking in schools and before the Delta variant had become widespread throughout the United States. The decision has been met with praise and criticism, largely along political party lines. Former Democratic presidential candidate and Housing and Urban Development secretary under Obama Juliàn Castro is one of many voicing concern over the ban on mask mandates in schools.
Texas is not alone in this kind of guidance, however. Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Utah have all banned requiring masks in schools.
Fortunately, Texas has done a better job of vaccinating adolescents than the rest of the South — slightly over 42% of children 12 to 17 have received a vaccine. And yet it may be months before children younger than 12 will be eligible for their “jab.” As cases among 12 to 15-year-olds have doubled since June and have risen by more than 80% in 16 and 17-year-olds in the past month, according to reporting from USA Facts.
Some districts are pushing back. Superintendent Millard House, who heads the state’s largest school district in Houston, has stated his intention to implement a mask mandate in schools, which will be brought to a vote at the district’s Board of Education meeting this Thursday, ahead of their first day on Aug. 23.
“As you all know, the safety of our HISD staff and students is my top priority,” House said in a video statement last week. “As a result, during tonight’s agenda review, I moved forward to announce that I will propose a mask mandate. This mask mandate will be for our students, staff and visitors at all of our schools, buses and facilities, to be voted on next Thursday in our board meeting.” The mandate, he says, will be applied regardless of vaccination status.
On Aug. 9, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa of Dallas Independent School District announced that a mask mandate effective the next day. Ben Mackey, Dallas’ Board of Education president, supported Hinojosa’s announcement. “We have a primary responsibility to keep our students safe in our schools and requiring masks is a critical step,” he tweeted.
Dallas is the first district to flout Abbott’s executive order, an action that may be punished with a $1,000 fine, though it is unclear how that might be applied to school districts. “Who knows,” Hinojosa said at Monday’s press conference. “All this is going to play itself out, and we’re not going to be the only ones taking this action.”
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.