Despite concerns from medical experts about the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, Governor Greg Abbott doubled his stance this week that Texas will not reintroduce a mask mandate for the campus in the coming school year.
“Children are not forced by the government – or schools – to wear a mask in school,” Abbott said Tuesday in an interview with Houston’s NBC subsidiary KPRC-TV. “You can wear a mask at your parents’ option, but there won’t be a government mandate that requires masks.”
While Abbott’s stance is at odds with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have been calling for in recent days – namely, that students and staff, especially those who are not vaccinated, wear masks when in return to the classroom – the governor holds all cards.
Its executive order, issued in May, prevents public schools and the Texas Education Agency from enforcing all mask usage requirements.
“It limits what we can ask and ask for,” said Jennifer Finley, director of health for the Dallas ISD.
As a communicable strain of COVID-19 spreads across Texas – with an increase in hospital admissions, positivity rates, and outbreaks – experts are concerned about what going back to school could mean for children and families if classes start in a few weeks.
“This pandemic is far from over and we are likely to face another wave of COVID infections,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, the infectious disease director at Children’s Health and a professor at UT Southwestern. “So my advice to parents is to be as careful as possible.”
“A new phase”
Infectious disease experts in the Dallas area have been watching the rise in the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the region for more than a month.
Originating from India, the Delta variant is 40% to 50% more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strains.
While it has not been found to increase the risk of hospitalization compared to those with other strains, doctors are concerned about Delta’s ability to spread through the population more efficiently and faster. It is still unclear whether the emergence of the Delta strain could lead to more “breakthrough” cases in which COVID-19 occurs regardless of vaccination or immunity to previous infection.
Last month, the World Health Organization described the variant as the “fastest and fittest” coronavirus strain to date. And in a short time, the Delta variant has become the most dominant strain of the virus in the United States.
North Texas hospital admissions for COVID-19 have increased 156% in the last month, according to the latest model from UT Southwestern Medical Center. On July 19, nearly a thousand people were hospitalized with COVID in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
A recent model from UT Southwestern predicted that Dallas County would see approximately 600 new COVID-19 cases daily through August 9, a week before most schools return to classroom teaching.
“We are entering a new phase of the COVID pandemic,” said Kahn. “The data we have from the CDC and other institutions closely monitoring COVID has shown that cases are increasing in almost every state. You don’t have to go back more than four or five weeks, the trends in the vast majority of states have been going down. “
Vaccinations are the best protection against the new strain, experts say. But the pace of vaccinations in Dallas County has slowed in recent weeks. According to the state, 51% of the county’s eligible population are fully vaccinated.
“Vaccines are the most effective defense against infection with COVID and serious illness, and we continue to urge all eligible Texans to get the vaccine,” Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said in a statement The Dallas Morning News. “The COVID vaccine will always be voluntary and never enforced in Texas.”
However, not all students can – or will – be vaccinated.
According to the Texas Education Agency, over half of the state’s 5.4 million public students are under the age of 12, so they are currently not eligible for the vaccine.
To acknowledge this loophole, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its “Return to School” guidelines this week to recommend that all staff – and students over 2 – regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status in schools, wear face masks. This opinion went further than the CDC’s recent update, which asked only unvaccinated students and staff to mask themselves.
“Since schools cannot do this monitoring, universal masking is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement and compliance without the need to additionally monitor vaccination status,” the guideline says.
Abbott: It’s the parents’ choice
In a spate of television appearances this week, Abbott disregarded both the CDC and AAP recommendations, stating that decisions about whether or not children should wear masks are best left to parents.
“The people most responsible for their children’s health are parents, and parents have the right … to decide whether or not their child wears a mask in school,” Abbott told Fox News .
In his interview with KPRC-TV, Abbott suspected that parents who were concerned about the Delta variant – and did not need to have their child vaccinated yet – would do so as the school year approaches.
Upon request from The news Eze did not respond directly to what suggestions the governor had for families with children under the age of 12.
“Governor Abbott has made it clear that the time for the state to wear masks is over – now is the time for personal responsibility,” the statement said.
Districts, including the Dallas ISD, have encouraged students and families to learn about vaccines, keep vaccine and COVID-19 prevention brochures in their locations, and use school locations as vaccination centers.
Two high schools in Dallas, Samuell and Conrad, held clinics for the second shot last week, said Finley, DISD’s health director.
“We’ll have information about the campus – but we know it’s a very family-oriented choice, and we understand that,” she said. “There is so much misinformation about the vaccine. We are providing resources where families can go to … credible sources instead of finding out on TikTok. “
Until Abbott reconsiders its executive order, Finley added, there is little more to be done other than resuming other preventive measures like good hand hygiene, not sending sick children to school, and maintaining social distancing as much as possible like the do District “can comply”.
Doug Williams, Sunnyvale ISD superintendent and president of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said his district was considering reducing class sizes again, but found that move impractical at the time.
He noted that another preventive measure – the return to virtual schooling – was off the table after state lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have fully funded such classes.
Last summer, State Education Commissioner Mike Morath used disaster authority to issue waivers that allowed Texas public schools to obtain funding for virtual classes. But that power isn’t available for the new school year, TEA officials said last month after lawmakers changed state law to restrict the commissioner’s reach.
Still, Williams said he was cautiously optimistic about the start of the year. The existence of vaccines could make a difference in turning the tide unlike last summer’s fighting, he noted.
Kahn, head of the children’s infectious disease division, said he was optimistic that many of the current COVID-19 vaccines would be approved for younger children sometime this fall.
Although many parents will push their age-appropriate students to get a vaccine, another big part won’t be due to the recent politicization of the problem, he said.
“I fear there will be parents who will regret choosing not to have their children vaccinated,” he said. “Children – although generally less prone to severe infections due to COVID – we see severe COVID in children. Not vaccinating your child, in essence, does not mean projecting them against the risk of serious illness. This is a safe vaccine. The benefits of the vaccine far outweigh any risks. “
The DMN Education Lab deepens reporting and discussion on pressing educational issues that are critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control over the Education Lab’s journalism.