Education

Community Members Push For Mask Mandates In Houston-Area School Districts

School districts across the state including Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas ISD have defied the Governor’s orders, announcing their plans to implement their own mask mandate.

Northside High School senior Ana Angeles talks about her concern about returning to school in person while standing beside U.S. Rep. Al Green on August 11, 2021.

Parents, teachers, students, and staffers on Wednesday called on school districts across the region to follow Houston ISD's lead by implementing a mask mandate for all area schools, buses, and district facilities.

The group rallied outside HISD's Hattie Mae White administrative building, where members of Cypress-Fairbanks and Aldine ISDs praised Houston district leaders, who were expected to pass the mandate Thursday.

Aly Fitzpatrick, the mother of twins entering second grade in the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, criticized her district's failure to enforce a similar mandate.

Without it, Fitzpatrick said, children under 12 — who cannot be vaccinated— are left unprotected. Fitzpatrick added that the lack of a mandate would also create unnecessary social tension at school.

"It pits children who wear masks, against children who aren't wearing masks, because the adults in the room won't do their job," she said.

Leslie Francis, a spokesperson for Cy-Fair ISD, said the district was unable to implement a mask mandate due to legal restrictions.

"Per Gov. Greg Abbott's Executive Order, face masks cannot be mandated; face masks are optional for all CFISD students and staff," Francis wrote in an email to Houston Public Media.

Francis pointed to Cy-Fair's Lead Safely Plan, updated on Monday, which now includes a temporary virtual learning option, but no mask mandate or contact tracing plan.

In May, Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting all government entities – including public schools – from mandating masks.

"Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities," the Governor said at the time.

But last week, HISD Superintendent Millard House II announced plans to implement a mask mandate for all district facilities for the upcoming school year.

The Houston Board of Education will vote on the measure Thursday. House said on Wednesday’s Town Square that his proposed mask mandate will be implemented regardless of the outcome, since the board would be voting on a “resolution of support,” and not the implementation of the mandate.

U.S. Rep. Al Green holds a sign that reads “WE DEMAND SCHOOL SAFETY” during a rally outside of HISD's Hattie Mae White administrative building on August 11, 2021.

The latest Texas Education Agency's guidelines, updated last week, do not require Texas public schools to inform parents when positive cases of COVID-19 occur at their students' campus. TEA guidelines also state that schools are not required to conduct tracing following a student infection.

School districts across the state including Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas ISD have defied the Governor's orders, announcing their plans to implement their own mandate.

Beyond HISD, however, no other Houston-area school district has announced plans to implement a mask mandate. Organizers say they hope their increased pressure – and HISD's recent action – will encourage the remaining Houston-area school districts to adopt mask mandates across all schools.

Candis Houston, President of Aldine American Federation of Teachers, who taught business for 16 years in the Aldine school district, said Aldine ISD's mask "recommendation" is not enough. She says she hopes HISD's action will inspire other districts to adopt similar measures.

"We hope HISD's Board of Trustees approve it because what we know is other school districts tend to follow the lead of HISD," Houston said.

In an email, Aldine chief of staff Sheleah D. Reed said the district agreed that masks were important, but said the district would not issue a mandate, instead saying it would be "strongly recommending" masks in compliance with Abbott's directive.

Houston-area health officials have reported increased rates of COVID-related hospitalization, with ICUs reaching full or close-to-full capacity, as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread. And officials warn that with the reopening of schools and return of in-person learning, those infection rates will likely continue to surge.

Ana Angeles, a rising senior at Northside High School, said that without a mask mandate, she worries about the health of family members with weakened immune systems.

"Since we have no option but to go in person, we have to do the best we can to prevent spreading the delta variant," Angeles said.

The rally-goers were joined by U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who said Abbott should not "stand in the way of saving lives."

"We are not here to ask, we are not here to beseech, we are not here to appeal, we are here to demand that masks be worn, not just in this school district, but in all 254 counties," Green said. "If we fail to do so, we are failing the future."

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