Education News

With cases of COVID-19 down, some Texas school districts have made mask wearing optional

School districts in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are letting students, teachers and staff decide for themselves on whether to wear face coverings.

A masked student at Love Elementary School in Houston.

Some of Texas' largest public school districts are dropping their mask mandates for students, teachers and other staff as cases of COVID-19 in the state continue to decrease.

The Houston Independent School District announced masks were optional as of Tuesday.

“Masks within HISD schools, facilities, [and] our school buses will all be optional with this modification," HISD superintendent Millard House II said during a press conference Monday. "Anyone that may need additional layers of protection or are exhibiting symptoms of a communicable disease are highly encouraged to wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status. Anyone wanting to wear a mask can still request one when entering an HISD facility."

House said the district will be prepared to update its guidance in the event of another outbreak of COVID-19.

The Austin Independent School District decided to make face coverings optional beginning March 7 following a meeting between school board officials and the city's health director, KUT reported.

"Our COVID numbers have significantly decreased,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said Wednesday. “To be exact .007% [of the school community tested positive] this past week.”

Ken Zarifis, the head of Education Austin, AISD’s teacher’s union, said he hoped the district would have kept the requirement in place until the end of the school year, citing how unpredictable spikes in COVID-19 cases have been in the past.

“We don’t have anyone coming up and saying ‘hey Ken, why isn’t Education Austin helping advocate for getting rid of this mask mandate?'" he told KUT. "Nobody that is doing the work every single day is asking that.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines last week on face coverings based on updated data on hospitalizations and infections. According to the CDC, people residing in about 70% of the country don't need to wear masks to ward off the virus, although they are still recommended in some cases.

"With current high levels of vaccination and high levels of population immunity from both vaccination and infections, the risk of medically significant disease, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 is greatly reduced for most people," CDC officials said when the new guidance was announced.

In the San Antonio area, the North East Independent School District has not had a mask mandate for a while and the Northside Independent School District released a statement earlier in February ending their temporary mask mandate, Texas Pubic Radio reported. Harlandale Independent School District released a statement on Feb. 28 stating masks in school would be optional starting Tuesday, March 1.

The Dallas Independent School also announced on Monday that it was allowing mask use to be optional, though it still recommends face coverings for students and staff. The announcement came after the CDC downgraded Dallas County’s level of community spread to "medium".

"This additional measure gives us greater confidence to adjust some of our protocols. School visitors and volunteers will be allowed on a limited basis and masks are recommended while inside," DISD officials said on their website. "Campuses will receive further guidance detailing the specifics on the specific updates."

Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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