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Education

Surprised And Confused: Northside ISD Parents, Teachers Respond To District’s Hesitation To Mandate Masks

This time last year,  everyone in the Northside Independent School District was wearing masks. In 2020, Glenoaks Elementary held a curbside meet-the-teacher event the week before the district started the school year remotely.
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When the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District ordered local public schools to require masks indoors Tuesday, Shannon Marquess thought her son’s district would be one of the first to agree.

“I felt they were very proactive last year, and at the end of my son's fourth grade year (when the pandemic first started),” Marquess said.

But when she and her son went to his Northside middle school Wednesday for orientation and a band event, signs at the door said masks were recommended but not required, and people who weren’t wearing masks weren’t asked to wear one.

Northside, San Antonio’s largest school district with more than 100,000 students, is taking a wait-and-see approach to the legal battle that temporarily allowed Metro Health to implement the mask mandate.

District officials told TPR they didn’t want to confuse parents and staff by implementing a mandate that may no longer be in place on Aug. 23, the district’s first day of school.

But for Marquess, the delay is the confusing part.

“That they haven't said anything, or they're waiting for further information just feels very frustrating to me, because they should be going along with all the other school districts,” Marquess said. “Students' health should be the primary objective, you know, the primary goal here.”

Many Northside parents, students and teachers found out the district wasn’t following San Antonio’s school mask mandate after they arrived on campus Wednesday.

Those who didn’t have orientation or training or practice found out by word of mouth or from local news reports.

Lauren, a teacher at one of Northside’s high schools, said she found out through a tweet from Texas Public Radio.

“They have not communicated at all to the staff about this. I'm sure they've communicated to the high-level staff, but teachers haven't gotten anything,” Lauren said. “In the past few weeks leading up to school (we haven’t got much) about safety precautions, or anything, so we find out through the media.”

Lauren said Wednesday was one of two days her high school set aside for students to pick up their schedules, and it was also the day of freshman orientation.

“There were hundreds of people mixing on campus,” Lauren said. “I just think it's really disrespectful to us that they don't want to protect our families. And I believe that that’s political.”

Masks have become so political that several parents and teachers, including Lauren, didn’t feel comfortable with TPR using their last names.

Northside Superintendent Brian Woods also blames the situation on politics, but he blames state and local officials.

“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,” Woods told TPR.

He sent an email to his cabinet and principals Wednesday, telling them to continue encouraging but not requiring masks, and apologizing for the “political tug of war.”

Parents and teachers, however, told TPR they didn’t receive any communication from the district about the local mask mandate. Nothing was communicated publicly on the district’s website or social media accounts.

Woods said he “chose to stay in the same mode of communication that we've had for the last several weeks” because he wanted to “craft a coherent message” about Northside’s plans for the first day of school.

“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. “While it's great for media to have this back and forth, and us look like the tail that's being wagged by the dog, it's not good for our kids or our teachers or and certainly for our parents. And so, so we just chose to stay in the same mode of communication that we've had for the last several weeks.”

Woods said he will communicate Northside’s position on masks clearly before the first day of school.

Lauren said she’s optimistic Northside will comply with the local order if it holds up in court on Monday.

“I know that they have a lot of pressure and they've had to make decisions quickly, but I feel like in the past we've mostly fallen in line with some of the other really big districts in Texas, advocating for the same things,” Lauren said. “I think it's whatever happens Monday. If it is continued, I mean, I just can't imagine they wouldn't (follow the mandate). That's what I want to hope.”

But the delay is making many parents who want the district to follow the recommendations of public health officials nervous.

Sarah, a math teacher with over a decade of tenure at Northside, said the lack of clear communication about the district’s COVID-19 protocols made her worry her four kids won’t be safe. She pulled her kids out of Northside schools and resigned on Monday after a couple of scares.

First, her middle schooler’s principal said masks were optional, instead of encouraged.

“As a teacher, I understand what it means to make that statement to a group of middle schoolers,” Sarah said. “Once they've read that, they know that they don't have to put on a mask.”

Then, she found out she’d been exposed to COVID at a school event. The district didn’t notify her of the exposure because she was wearing a mask.

“It's not reassuring as a parent to know that your child could be in a class or several classes with a positive, you know, a COVID positive student, and you wouldn't even know, so you couldn't be safe at home with your unvaccinated kids,” said Sarah.

Like Marquess, Sarah assumed that Northside would follow the local mask mandate as soon as it was announced.

“I had this moment of heartbreak when I saw the (local mandate), and I was like, ‘Oh, no, I resigned too early,’” Sarah said.

But the next day, she heard Northside wasn’t requiring masks after all.

“And then I was like, ‘Oh no, that was the right decision,’” Sarah said.

Marquess wants her 11-year-old son to go to school in person, and is keeping him enrolled for now. She said he needs the social interaction he missed during remote learning last year.

But he’s not old enough for the vaccine, and with the Delta variant surging she’s scared he could get COVID-19.

“I'm worried that if there's not a mask mandate or requirement from the school or the county or the state government, will there be a child who picks on him? Will a teacher, you know, not support the mask wearing?” Marquess said. “I just worry that something's going to happen that's going to peer pressure him into not wanting to wear a mask.”

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