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Education

Alamo Heights, Like Most San Antonio School Districts, Will Require Masks

A woman in a face mask speaks into a mic inside the Alamo Heights High School auditorium.
Camille Phillips
/
Texas Public Radio
Ann David, an education professor with two children enrolled in Alamo Heights ISD, tells the board a mask mandate is needed to help kids avoid missing school in quarantine, pointing to increased absences experienced during remote learning last year.

After a seven hour emergency meeting Saturday, trustees for the Alamo Heights Independent School District approved a temporary indoor mask mandate to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The mandate goes into effect on Monday, Aug. 23 and will last until Friday, Sept. 10. Alamo Heights Superintendent Dana Bashara will have the option to extend the mandate if needed based on a campus case threshold of 1%.

About 80 people showed up for the board meeting at 8 a.m. Saturday for the district’s third meeting on COVID-19 policies in less than two weeks.

Emily Whittington was one of several parents who asked the board to keep masks optional during public comments.

“I don't want to co-parent with the government,” Whittington said. “I think it is the parent's right. And it's a huge infringement on that for any entity to make a medical decision for a family.”

Whittington said she’s not worried about her first grader getting sick because she believes in natural immunity.

“God made our bodies in a beautiful, wonderful way,” Whittington said. “I think it's important for children to be exposed to germs so that their body understands how to fight (them).”

Several other parents spoke in favor of a mask mandate. Ana Romo was one of several parents who asked trustees to follow the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks in their schools.

Alamo Heights just finished its first week of the school year. Romo said there’s already been a coronavirus case in her son’s classroom.

“His teachers, I'm sure, are going to be disappointed that they're going to have to teach all of these kids and try to catch (up those) who've been quarantined. And it's just, there's a very simple answer to it. It's mask. It's HEPA filters in the classrooms, and outside space as much as possible. And ventilation.”

Both of her children are too young to be vaccinated.

“Before COVID sometimes my kids would complain about school. They have learned to appreciate school, they've learned to appreciate being in the classroom, they want to be there, and the only way they are going to be able to be there is if everybody comes together and helps protect one another,” Romo said.

Several parents against mask requirements also argued that people who don’t feel safe without masks can still wear them, either disregarding or distrusting the position of public health experts, who say that universal masking is the best way to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Before recommending trustees approve the temporary mask mandate, Alamo Heights administrators said their district of about 4,800 students had three coronavirus cases by the end of the first week last school year. This year, the district had 30 cases by the end of the first week on Friday.

A man without a face mask addresses the Alamo Heights ISD board with others without masks seated behind him.
Camille Phillips
Most audience members against a mask mandate sat on one side of the Alamo Heights High School auditorium, while those in favor of a mandate sat on the other side.

Superintendent Dana Bashara said 40 more students are under quarantine because they were close contacts.

“So 70 students at this time, on day five, are not in our classrooms learning,” Bashara said. “We need our own AHISD students in our classrooms learning, not at home recovering from COVID, not at home trying to learn in remote conferencing when they are in quarantine. It's more important than ever that we prioritize academics.”

Alamo Heights administrators also said they discovered last year that it became difficult for their schools to function when their campus coronavirus case rates went above 1%. They said programs had to close and substitute teachers to replace teachers in quarantine became hard to find at that threshold. According to district data, Woodridge Elementary started out the school year above 1% this year and reached nearly 1.5% two days later.

Based on that trend, Bashara asked trustees to give her the flexibility to extend the mask mandate beyond the first three weeks depending on the positivity rate at each campus.

“I know that this is not the year that any one of us had envisioned. I know that last spring (and even this summer) we were very excited … when we had masks as an option for our students,” Bashara said. “The arrival of this delta variant upended the plans that we had in place.”

Before trustees approved the superintendent’s request, Board President Ryan Anderson said it was important to recognize that Alamo Height’s mask requirement worked last year when combined with other safety measures, like social distancing and cohorting.

“And for me, at least, that seems to caution me not to stray from what we know works without there being a compelling reason,” Anderson said. “A week ago, there was a compelling reason. We knew what the law was, or at least we thought we knew what the law was. We had the governor's order saying you can't have masks.”

“In the ensuing week or so, the state of the law has been thrown into utter chaos,” Anderson added, referencing the multiple court cases filed to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates.

Most San Antonio school districts, including Northside, North East and San Antonio ISD, implemented mask mandates earlier this week.

Court cases on the legality of the governor’s executive order are not yet decided. The Texas Education Agency is not enforcing his ban while the court cases continue.

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