Education

As Schools Gear Up, COVID-19 Protocols Are in the Spotlight

Photo by Mira Kireeva on Unsplash
Some state legislators want to see masks reintroduced to the classroom.
The first day of school is creeping ever-closer at the same time coronavirus cases continue to climb, but some education advocates say the state’s Republican governor has kept local districts from making their own safety decisions.

In late July, 31 Democratic Texas lawmakers signed on to a letter written by Austin state Rep. Vikki Goodwin requesting greater autonomy for local districts. Addressed to Gov. Greg Abbott and the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, it asks them to reconsider mask mandates and funding for virtual learning.
Dallas state Rep. Rafael Anchía, who signed the letter, said a large portion of the unvaccinated population is school-aged. Those 11 and under are not yet eligible for a vaccine, meaning they could easily catch the disease and spread it throughout the community.

The education market is moving toward a virtual learning platform, he said. On top of that, school boards should be allowed to create their own COVID-19 safety measures.

“I would much prefer our board of trustees to make the decision on masks rather than some politician in Austin who’s running for reelection, which is what is driving virtually all of the governor’s decisions right now,” said Anchía, whose children attend Dallas ISD.

The move comes as large counties statewide are once more encouraging rigorous coronavirus measures. Dallas County recently raised the region’s threat level for unvaccinated residents back to orange, indicating they should exercise “extreme caution.”

Meanwhile, Dallas ISD’s coronavirus dashboard continues to tally new cases. Twenty-two of the 30 cases detected in July were from last week, according to data published on Thursday.

At the same time state officials are easing restrictions, children are increasingly becoming ill with the disease. Young unvaccinated people nationwide are now being hospitalized in “disturbing numbers,” according to NBC News.

Despite being eligible for inoculation for months, vaccination rates for children 12 to 18 are relatively low. A little more than a quarter of children 12 to 15 have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number for kids 16 to 17 is around 40%.

“If the governor really cares about the health and safety then he’s got to get school districts the authority ... to impose a mask mandate." – Clay Robison, TSTA spokesman

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Teachers’ associations are also beseeching state leadership to allow for mask mandates. In May, after Abbott banned mask requirements in public schools, the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) called the decision “premature.”

TSTA spokesman Clay Robison said on top of allowing districtwide mask mandates once more, remote learning should be an option for schools. While educators have reported widespread learning loss, remote learning also undoubtedly saved lives during the height of the pandemic.

“If the governor really cares about the health and safety, then he’s got to get school districts the authority — if they feel they really need it — to impose a mask mandate,” Robison said.

Rena Honea, president of Dallas’ Alliance/AFT union, said she’s truly happy for the legislators’ advocacy but wishes there were more co-signers from both sides of the political aisle.

After the coronavirus landed in North Texas, Alliance/AFT fought for stricter safety measures districtwide. Honea said they were “aghast” when Abbott banned school districts from enforcing mask mandates in what appeared to be a “pure political move.”

Teachers understand that in-person is by far the best type of instruction, Honea said. But illness and death caused by the coronavirus have a “direct impact on the schools” and surrounding communities.

Honea said Dallas ISD will continue implementing some coronavirus safety measures, such as hand sanitization and strongly encouraging the use of masks.

“The district last year called for grace and mercy in the work of our schools and our educators and our kids,” she said. “We definitely need to up the ante on that and provide grace and mercy, compassion and caring for all that are involved right now in moving forward with this next school year.”