Dallas-Fort Worth schools debate COVID-19 mask requirements
Texas school principals were again at the center of a COVID-19 security debate after Governor Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate but allowed districts to change their mask policies at their discretion.
In his March 2 announcement, Abbott said schools could take their lead from the Texas Education Agency. Two days later, the TEA released an 11-page update to COVID-19 safety guidelines recommending districts to continue enforcing masks on campus based on the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control. However, the TEA has updated its guidelines to allow school authorities to determine how their mask should be worn.
Chelsea Baldwin, vice executive director of the United Educators Association, said the TEA was “not very clear about whether or not they could enforce masks”.
The resulting guidelines are similar to the mix of virtual and face-to-face practices that districts have introduced over the past year. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the districts’ updated mask guidelines varied widely. Neighboring school districts adopted conflicting guidelines, some districts changed their procedures, and others postponed the decision entirely until after the spring break.
“It’s bad politics” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “It is bad public and health policy to leave it to individual districts or individuals at all.”
Many districts like Birdville and Weatherford tried to base their decisions on what the community wanted.
However, Capo said public health decisions should not be made this way.
“At this point, the responsibility is back with the local school members, who unfortunately are much closer to the emotional side of this argument,” he said. “And they have to make very tough and tough decisions based on the will of the majority.”
In a press release from the Cook Children’s Medical Center, Dr. Marc Mazade, Medical Director, Infection Prevention and Control, Schools in Tarrant County and surrounding counties, continues to use masks for students and teachers.
“As most people now know, more highly communicable and even some vaccine-resistant strains of COVID-19 have gained a foothold,” Mazade said in the press release. “Now is not the time to relax. Rather, it is time for even more vigilance. “
Cook Children’s recommends that parents continue their family’s prevention methods such as masking and social distancing until children can be vaccinated against COVID-19, which could happen later this year.
Abbott’s order and subsequent decisions by most districts will take effect Wednesday.
Change of masks in school districts
Birdville School Board voted Monday night to continue requiring masks for teachers and students, with the exception of students from preschool through third grade. The change was based on the TEA’s updated policy that recommended that students under the age of 10 may not be required to wear a mask.
At Monday’s meeting, Communications Officer Mark Thomas read a handful of the 74 public comments the board had received on the requirement to wear masks. A total of 56 people wanted the mask requirement to remain, five requested a change, and 13 said the masks should be removed. The board’s resulting decision was based on the TEA and CDC guidelines and those public comments, Thomas said.
“It was just a small change to keep the youngest kids from wearing masks in the classroom, ”he said. “There are times when you still have to wear a mask, like when you’re out in the hallway.”
Other counties have completely abolished the mask requirement.
In a 4-3 vote, Weatherford School Board approved a recommendation Monday night to continue requiring masks for students and teachers. In a press release about the board vote, the district cited poll data it had received from the community. Of 2,940 responses from parents, 58.9% were in favor of removing the mask requirement. In a survey of employees, 60.4% of the 902 responses also supported the elimination of mask enforcement.
The district used this data – along with public comments and COVID-19 case trends – to make its decision, School Board President Mike Guest said in the press release.
“We hope this decision will bring some level of normalcy back to the classroom,” he said in the statement. “This decision gives parents and employees the right to do what they think is best for their families.”
The neighboring district of Aledo took the opposite approach. The obligation for teachers and students to wear a mask remains unchanged due to the TEA and CDC guidelines. In a letter to parents and teachers, Superintendent Susan Bohn stated that 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 became very ill and had to stay in hospital for long periods of time because of this illness,” 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 unless they are healthy.”
The school districts of Arlington, Fort Worth, Crowley, Colleyville, Cedar Hill, and Burleson will continue to require masks. Granbury decided to wait until after the spring break to meet the mask requirements.
Burleson posted a detailed explanation of the decision on the district website.
The Burleson Public Health Authority informed the Burleson district leadership that the number of positive cases and identification of close contacts would change drastically if students and staff did not wear masks. In schools with no face covering, a COVID-19 positive student can result in four to six other students in each class being quarantined and switched to virtual classes. If the exposed, positive student sneezed or coughed, the entire class may need to be quarantined.
“So we ask which of the two alternatives reduces the risk of students missing out: wearing face-coverings or not?” the statement said. “Having worked with the health authority and got a clear picture of a consequence that TEA did not seem to have thought through, we found that TEA’s rejection of the facial covering requirement increases the risk of students missing out on this spring’s events. ”
Parents and teachers weigh in
Because district policies were different, the opinions of parents and teachers at these schools were also different.
Some teachers in the UEA support mask removal, while a small majority want mask requirements to remain, Baldwin said.
“We want schools to be open and people to work,” said Baldwin. “And we have to do everything we can to make this happen. And masks are definitely one way to do that. “
Teachers who defy mask requirements want the freedom to choose whether or not to wear one. However, others are concerned about getting sick or passing the virus on to others.
“Those who want masks want to protect those around them and protect themselves,” she said. “Because if you can’t work, you can’t look after your loved ones either.”
Many parents made similar arguments on both sides.
Lara, a parent of four at Morgan Mill ISD, said she supported Weatherford’s decision to remove mask requirements and hoped her district – which is adjacent to Weatherfords – does the same. She believes that the wearing of masks should be left to parents to decide what is best for their family. Lara asked not to use her last name for fear that her children would be rejected for her opinion.
“(Parents) are best placed to make family decisions based on their family’s health and immune systems,” she said.
Morgan Mill, who has approximately 111 students, was on spring break on March 9th and will decide what to do with the mask request on March 17th. If the district does not resolve the requirement, Lara would like to bring her children to Weatherford ISD. She said her children had rashes or headaches from wearing the masks.
“I am concerned about the long-term effects of masks, especially in younger children who develop speech and language,” she said.
Other parents fear that their children – and the community – will suffer if masks are not needed.
Amy Beerwinkle, mother of three at Weatherford ISD, said she was not surprised but disappointed with the district’s decision.
“I’m sure in the minds of the board they are doing what the public wanted,” she said. “But the school board needs to have a broader view of things than what is politically popular at the time, and this is one of them.”
She hoped the district would wait for the teachers to be vaccinated to remove masks. Instead, she said, the board rushed to reverse the mask requirement when the district only had to endure it for a few more months.
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Kaley Johnson is a news and corporate reporter. She studied investigative reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has a passion for delivering detailed, complex stories to readers that will impact their lives. Submit your tips via email or Twitter.