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Education

Northside ISD Continues Optional Mask Policy Despite San Antonio’s New Local Mandate

A student holds a pencil after returning to school as coronavirus restrictions are lifted in Philadelphia on March 8, 2021.
David Wallace/The Republic/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co
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Reuters
Marie Twist, an instructional coach, checks the temperature of a student at the start of the school day at Gateway Elementary School in Phoenix on March 18, 2021. Other than a brief return to in-person school in the fall, this was the first day the sixth graders were back in-person at the school since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District issued a new health directive Tuesday evening, requiring masks be worn in all Bexar County public schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Wednesday morning, the superintendent of San Antonio’s largest school district told his principals to disregard the mandate until further notice.

“To avoid flip flopping from day to day and because we still have relatively small numbers of students in our buildings, please stay consistent with highly encouraging mask wearing for both students and staff,” Northside Superintendent Brian Woods told principals in an email provided to Texas Public Radio.

“We will communicate a more permanent stance on this before school begins on 8/23.”

The mandate from Metro Health Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo requires all staff and students aged 2 and older at public schools to wear masks indoors. School officials must also notify guardians when someone in their child’s classroom tests positive for coronavirus. Students and staff who are asked to quarantine may not go on school grounds for 14 days.

Local officials said Tuesday evening they expected superintendents to comply with the orders.

“The expectation is that there will be compliance. If you want to go to school you have to have a mask on,” city attorney Andy Segovia said.

In an interview with TPR, Woods said he was unaware local officials planned to challenge the state ban on mask mandates until the city and county filed suit. San Antonio was issued a temporary restraining order after the city and county filed suit, allowing Metro Health to enact the mask mandate at least until a formal hearing on Monday, Aug. 16.

“You've got people who do not understand the operations of a school issuing mandates on how the school ought to operate. And, frankly, doing so because it benefits them with their political base,” said Woods. “And I think all of us are tired of that. And we're tired of whipsawing back and forth, right before school starts, which is horrible for teachers and students and parents.”

Several San Antonio school districts are following the local health directive, including San Antonio ISD, North East ISD, Harlandale, Edgewood and South San. North East ISD and Harlandale start school on Monday, Aug. 16. The school year already started this week at SAISD, Edgewood and South San.

In a social media post announcing they would comply with the mandate, SAISD officials said they “stand by our local leaders who continue to prioritize the safety of our community.”

North East ISD, meanwhile, said they would comply with the mandate while the judge’s temporary restraining order allowing the mandate remains in place.

Students and staff are currently on Northside campuses for trainings, orientations and extracurriculars. However, Woods said Northside’s later start date put his district in the position to let the legal battle play out.

“We have a little bit more time to vet this, to pay attention to the legal wrangling that's yet to occur that we know will happen, as well as kind of the political movement on this topic,” Woods said. “What I don't want to do to teachers and kids and parents is come out with the statement, and then three days later have to retract it, because some official somewhere has made a decision or a ruling or issued a mandate.”

Woods said he also doesn’t want to put Northside in the crosshairs of state politicians trying to enforce the state ban on mask mandates.

“That has to be a consideration,” Woods said. “Especially if those consequences would apply to people beyond me. I can't subject my board or my staff to possible criminal penalties and fines.”

Woods says that he plans to come up with a district mask policy before the first day of school, and that it may or may not comply with either the state or the local mandate.

“I think it's time for some of us who feel like it's reasonable to declare a position that may or may not go along with any of these mandates that just make sense in the local context,” Woods said. “I'm not ready to say what that position is going to be, but I am ready to say that I think it's time for us to revisit the notion of local control on this issue, especially. And everybody has opinions on this. And I understand and try to respect those opinions. But we've got to face some facts about who's eligible for a vaccine and who's not, and who's actually taken the vaccine in numbers and who hasn't, and are we having cases on campuses or not. It seems like that ought to be relevant to how we operate.”

City officials indicated Wednesday that districts who don’t comply with the local mask mandate are unlikely to be fined or face other consequences.

“Our goal is not to punish school districts but to give them and the local health authority time-sensitive tools to protect students and staff. Unfortunately, not complying with this mask mandate only increases the possibility that those in their care could be infected with the virus when it’s clear we know it can be avoided,” said City Attorney Andy Segovia in a statement.

Joey Palacios and Bri Kirkham contributed to this report.

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