On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said masks should be required of everyone attending, visiting or working at K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status. This comes on the heels of an earlier recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending universal masking in school for everyone over age 2.
The recommendations put Houston public schools in a bind as they are required to follow Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s May announcement that public schools can no longer require masks on their campuses. The executive order also bans government entities in Texas from mandating masks.
About masks, Houston ISD released the following statement:
“Earlier this summer, Governor Abbott issued an executive order banning mask mandates on public school campuses so HISD cannot require them, but those who want to wear a mask may certainly do so.”
That is the same stance of the private schools in the area. St. Thomas High School sent out an email to its school community this week encouraging all eligible students, faculty and staff who have not already done so to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Earlier this week, new HISD superintendent Millard House II released a video statement saying the district was in close contact with state and federal officials to ensure a safe learning environment for 100 percent in-person learning.
Compounding the mask question is the fact Texas will not provide funding for students in 100 percent virtual learning next school year after House Bill 1468 – to provide funding – died when House Democrats broke quorum to squash the elections bill during the regular legislative session. Funding for virtual learning is not on the agenda for a special legislative session.
Some school districts, notably in Round Rock and Leander, are planning to fund a virtual learning option with their ESSER funding from the federal government, which is allowed.
Texas Connections Academy, a public online charter school in Houston has offered a virtual option for parents since 2009, and it is an option some parents say they are exploring.
A number of local parents are worried about what the new school year will bring in light of the more contagious Delta variant of COVID.
Irene Arango has children in both HISD middle and elementary schools. She said she wishes the district could mandate masks.
“Kids younger than 12 cannot be vaccinated,” Arango said. “Some kids older than 12 might not be vaccinated, either. Mandating masks while on school grounds would allow all kids a certain degree of protection that could significantly reduce the risk of getting ill. The pandemic is not over. I feel we are being forced to send the kids to a potentially unsafe environment.”
Arango said if virtual learning was an option, she would consider it.
“However, if most people are sending kids back to school, there is also the emotional aspect for the kids,” she said. “My preference is sending in person. Schools should (be able to) continue offering virtual as an option, at least when kids are sick. Otherwise, I am pretty sure that sick kids will be sent to schools.”
Oak Forest parent Suzanne Ragsdale kept her kids home all last year and said she would not be open to a virtual option this year.
“I very much wish masks were required in HISD at least for the kids if not for everyone, (but) I think my kids need to be in school with their peers,” she said. “So, I’m buying the safest masks I can and am going to pray.”
Cara Ramelow has two children attending Heights High School this fall. She said she is thankful her kids were able to be vaccinated.
“Otherwise, sending them back to school next month would be a whole different story,” she said.