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Education

Texas' Mask Fight Boils Over Into San Antonio Schools

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Camille Phillips
/
Texas Public Radio
A woman speaks in support of a mask mandate during an emergency board meeting called by the Alamo Heights Independent School District Sat. Aug 21, 2021.

The latest, delta variant-inspired coronavirus surge arrived at a precarious time for Texas. It overwhelmed hospitals just as the new school year got underway, bringing together the largest unvaccinated population: children under 12 who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine.

Urban counties responded to the surge by filing lawsuits challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. As those lawsuits make their way through the courts, confusing — and sometimes conflicting — temporary orders have come down from multiple courts in recent weeks.

That’s left Texas school boards with a decision to make: require masks in schools, keep them optional or do their best to comply with whatever order applies to them on any given day.

Those choices have clear public health consequences: universal masking is one of the best ways to limit the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, especially when the vaccine isn’t an option. But the ongoing legal and political battle has become a flashpoint for school districts across the state, especially in communities where opinions about masks are divided.

In San Antonio’s more suburban and affluent school districts, parents with opposing viewpoints gave their school boards an earful:

“Which are you more afraid of: voters or COVID? Because you should be more afraid of the voters. We are going to organize and we are going to vote you out if you mask our children,” said one parent during a six-hour board meeting in San Antonio’s North East Independent School District.

“It is your job; it is your moral responsibility, your ethical responsibility — sometimes your legal responsibility — to do everything that you possibly can to protect these children,” said another parent during the emergency meeting called by the district to decide whether or not to institute a mask mandate four days after North East’s first day of school.

The controversy over masks also seems to be stirring up a lot of misinformation. Several parents against a mask mandate argued that masks don’t work and can even be harmful to children. Their public comments showed distrust in medical experts and a preference for gathering their own research, even if that research has been discredited by the scientific community.

Barbara Taylor, an associate professor of infectious diseases at UT Health San Antonio, said the science is actually really clear: cloth masks reduce the spread of aerosol and droplets.

“They don't prevent all of it. No one is saying that, but what we're talking about is risk mitigation: What lowers the risk?” said Taylor. “(Masking) is something that I have done as a part of my job for the last 20 years. It is something that we do. It is something that was done in the 1918 influenza pandemic.”

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Several parents also said that the flu was more dangerous for kids than COVID. They wanted to know why masks should be required now when they were never required before the pandemic.

“Stop being afraid. Stand up for our kids. We already know that the flu kills more kids,” said one mom.

“The facts just don't bear out that this is very deadly for children. It's more deadly for them to get the flu; more deadly for them driving to school in the mornings,” said a dad.

Taylor said one major difference is that there is a flu vaccine for children.

“COVID is different from the flu in that even in children COVID is more deadly and delta is more transmissible than the flu,” Taylor said. “There have, thank goodness, not been many deaths in children. But there have been some, and certainly many more children died from COVID last year than died from flu.”

Taylor said Texas hospitals are seeing a lot of co-infections in children right now, either infected with both COVID-19 and the flu or COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“We usually do not see either RSV or flu in August,” Taylor said. “There are also consequences of COVID infection for children that we should not ignore that are short of death.”

“The numbers for COVID pneumonia and children are not small,” Taylor said. “And there are many things that we don't understand. (For example, we’ve seen more) heart inflammation among older teens and athletes, then we see among any other age group with COVID.”

San Antonio school districts that started this school year without mask mandates saw a lot more COVID cases than last year — and a lot more in-school transmissions. District leaders pointed to that data as evidence of the need for masks.

First graders wearing masks draw the main parts of a story following the lead of their teacher.
Provided
A first grade class at Northside ISD's Boone Elementary participate in English Language Arts during the first week of school Aug. 26, 2021.

At Boone Elementary in the Northside Independent School District, a classroom full of first graders interacted with their teacher, Mrs. Cardenas, during the first week of school, reviewing the elements of a story they read.

“At the very beginning of the story she was excited to do what?” the teacher asked.

“Go to school,” the students said.

“To go to school. Very good. Were you excited to go to school?” the teacher said.

“Yes!” her students replied.

For many of the first graders, it’s the first time in months they’ve been in a classroom. Maybe even the first time ever.

One area where there is a lot of agreement these days is that kids do better when they don’t have to learn remotely. School leaders want to keep kids in the classroom and put the focus back on academics.

But that might not be totally up to them. COVID — and the courts — will have a lot to say about it, too.

Less than a week after North East ISD trustees approved a mask mandate, the district told parents it was no longer enforceable, due to a temporary order issued by the Texas Supreme Court. Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest district, kept its mask mandate in place and joined a lawsuit filed by several Rio Grande Valley school districts challenging the governor’s authority to ban mandates.

Last week, Texas schools reported more than 14,000 students tested positive for the coronavirus — more students than tested positive in any given week last school year, even though some Texas schools weren’t in session yet.

Several small rural districts have already closed temporarily due to high COVID case counts. Other schools have closed individual classrooms or grades.