Paris ISD students and staff will be required to wear face masks as part of the district’s dress code when school starts today following Board of Trustee action during an emergency meeting Tuesday. The move largely circumvents Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local government mask mandates, and Attorney General Ken Paxton is reportedly sending the district a cease and desist letter.
Trustee Dr. Bert Strom said the change is not permanent, and the board will revisit it at each monthly board meeting. The change added the wording — “For health reasons, masks are required for all employees and students to mitigate flu, cold, pandemic, and any other communicable diseases” — to the school district’s dress code. The district’s attorney provided advice on the wording, Strom said while making the motion to accept the change. He added that as a physician in the community, he cannot put any child or teacher at risk, no matter the cost to himself.
Strom’s motion passed 5-1, with Board President George Fisher absent and Trustee Clifton Fendley casting the dissenting vote. Prior to the vote, Fendley said he was not against masks as a mitigating measure during the Covid-19 pandemic, but he believed the school board was using a loophole to circumvent Abbott’s order. Such action is against the board’s oath of office, Fendley said.
“The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district. Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority,” the district stated in a press release after the meeting.
Trustees heard more than an hour of public comment during the Tuesday meeting at Paris High School and cast their votes after meeting with the district’s attorney in executive session. During public comment, the board heard from doctors, parents, staff and community leaders as they offered opposing viewpoints on masks.
Medical community favors masks
Several members of Paris’ medical community address the board, including Paris Regional Medical Center’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Amanda Green. Green also serves as Lamar County’s health authority and as Paris-Lamar County Health District’s medical director. She’s also the mother of two Paris High School students. She said the latest Covid-19 surge, fueled by the more contagious delta strain, has once again strained PRMC and hospitals throughout the state.
PRMC had 29 Covid-19 patients in house Tuesday, and it ran out of ventilators on Monday, she said. Staff were sent to retrieve five more. The hospital has requested help from state nurses, and two are on the way, she said. The hope is to have eight by the end of the week to help handle the increasing caseload.
There were 435 active cases in Lamar County on Tuesday morning, Green said, adding 70 more cases were reported that day.
She told trustees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all people, even the fully vaccinated, wear masks indoors to help stem the spread of the respiratory disease. Quarantine rules also still apply, she said.
“The (Texas Education Agency) is not correct, and I’ve gotten confirmation from the Texas Health and Human Services Department, we have not changed rules on quarantine,” Green said, adding only vaccinated people and those who wear a mask when in close contact with a Covid-positive person can avoid quarantine. Noting how difficult last year’s remote learning was for many families, Green said she wants to avoid school quarantines. She reminded trustees that vaccines are only available to people 12 and older. “When you talk about a choice, you have to think about the kids who don’t have a choice.”
PRMC pediatrician Dr. Aubrey Gibbs, Paris Junior High school nurse Mindy Maxwell, PRMC Intensive Care anesthesiologist Dr. Pia Lippincott and local family physician Dr. Deepak Muthappa all urged the board to require masks. Lippincott said she has patients from 20 years old to more than 50 intubated in the hospital’s ICU.
“People are dying from this,” she said. “A little mask for a few weeks won’t hurt you. I don’t have any nurses to take care of anybody that comes into the hospital right now. We are on our knees at the hospital.
“I’m asking people to please wear a mask, not for me, not for any political reason. For your fellow man. This is an emergency.”
Gibbs said her group wrote a letter to the board in support of a mask requirement because the latest wave of Covid-19 illnesses include more children than at any time during the pandemic. Many pediatric hospitals and ICUs are now full on a rolling basis, she said.
Like Green, Gibbs said her primary concern is keeping schools open. She said counties in Mississippi with similarly low vaccination rates as Lamar County — just 29.35% of Lamar County residents are fully vaccinated, according to CDC and state health department data — have shut schools down just weeks into the school year after hundreds of students were required to quarantine. A student in the state died from Covid-19.
“I’m all about individual choice and rights, but it’s a little bit terrifying to see how many kids we have right now coming in with Covid. The majority of them will be totally fine. They will do fantastic. But some will not, and I just feel like we’re in a special position to fight for these kids,” Gibbs said. “I really don’t want to intubate any more of them.”
Maxwell said most school nurses have already received calls from parents reporting their students have tested positive for Covid-19, and although she’d rather not have to wear a mask, she felt the decision should be up to the local school board. In the spring, it looked like masks would no longer be necessary but as the start of the school year approached, “it was obvious that our (Covid) numbers were increasing across the state,” she said.
“I would hate for it to be a situation where we look back and we wish we could have prevented illness and who knows how much more spread in the community without the resources that are available to take care of those sick right now,” Maxwell said.
Muthappa also spoke about rising case numbers, saying two months ago he would have opposed a mask mandate but the situation changed in the last month.
“Right now, with school starting in two days … with the scarcity of resources available right now, it’s important we make sure all the kids are safe,” he said. “If you want to give people an option not to wear (a mask) down the road, of course. That’s going to be there. … But for the sake of the general health of the children and their families at home and their grandparents, putting a mask mandate temporarily makes sense.”
Others speaking in favor of masks included pediatrician Dr. Clifford Scott, Paris Mayor Paula Portugal, retired Paris ISD administrator Joan Moore, veterinarian Dr. James O’Bryan and Assistant District Attorney Ben Kaminar, along with a few parents and district teachers.
A former U.S. Army captain, Kaminar said he learned risk can never be eliminated. It can be mitigated, and overlapping mitigation measures will help to further reduce risk. As the father of a 5-year-old entering the school district, he asked the board to consider that more people being masked will be more effective than a few wearing masks.
“I’ve heard a number of people throughout express concerns about needing to respect their decisions and their feelings and how our children feel, but y’alls duty is not to consider and respect our feelings, it’s to protect and safeguard the wellbeing of the children that we entrust to y’all and to our educators to keep them safe while they’re at school,” Kaminar said.
Parents, teachers offer objections
“Shame on you,” parent Joshua Vorron said as he exited Paris High School’s cafeteria after the board’s vote. Earlier in the meeting, Vorron said his child was among others who suffered mental health consequences from complying with last school year’s state mask mandate.
Vorron was among a chorus of parents and district staff members opposing masks for a variety of reasons, including morale, Abbott’s executive order, the Texas Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Abbott’s order, quality of instruction in class and freedom to choose what children wear to school.
Aikin Elementary third grade teacher Megan Groomes told the board she had a student last year who was deaf in one ear. Because she wore a mask, she did not give him an adequate education since he couldn’t read her lips or see what she had to say to teach him how to read and be successful, she said.
Kathy Kee, a reading teacher at Aikin Elementary, also expressed concerns about the impact of masks on quality of education “because at this age, they need to see the formation of their mouth and hear the letter sounds the correct way.” She said she was for masks if a person chooses to wear them, but she believed it should remain a choice.
Jill Stone is a Pre-AP English I teacher at Paris High School. She was concerned that children without a mask would be escorted from campuses and escorted back with a police officer and a lawsuit.
“Our students have had so many obstacles to overcome in the last 18 months. Their education has been upstaged and interrupted. Executive Order 36 states that (a mask mandate) is unlawful,” Stone said. “I am sensitive to the fact that there are children in the district who are not of age to receive a vaccine. Their parents should be trusted to make decisions that are best for their family. The law states that they are entrusted to do so.”
Justiss Elementary School reading interventionist Laura Chesshire told trustees that in her duty monitoring lunch, she saw children wearing soiled masks. It’s not that parents don’t care, she said, “they just don’t have the luxury of washing machines in their home.” And children will put the dirty mask back on their face. She also worried about the physical impacts of masks, saying her son experiences headaches and the frequency of his headaches increased when he wore a mask.
Renee Keeling, a second grade bilingual math, science and social studies teacher at Justiss Elementary, said mask wearing is difficult for young children, who have been known to toss the masks on the floor and even put them back on their faces before educators can catch them to give them a new mask.
“These masks are such a distraction for the students that it’s hard for them to learn,” Keeling said. “Us teachers also see the decline in self-esteem and confidence in students, not even to mention the social issues that are continually building.”
Susan Dicken has been a special education teacher for 30 years, and she said some of her students cannot tolerate a mask.
“As a teacher, my students need to see my face, my expressions and hear my words and not mumble,” she said. “I also have a daughter in fourth grade who has a strong immune system given by God, and I feel like it should be a choice for all students and teachers.”
Paris Junior High School Assistant Principal Amy Adkins voiced concerns about the message the Board of Trustees would send to students by going against the governor’s executive order. As the campus discipline coordinator, she said students were told to wear masks last year and if they didn’t, they were punished. This school year, though, the governor has said they don’t have to wear masks.
“If we mandate this into our dress code and go against what the governor has set forth, who’s going to deal with those issues?” she asked.
Adkins said it’s not fair to make campus administrators deal with those issues, adding she couldn’t support anything that would jeopardize Superintendent Paul Jones.
Several other staff members expressed similar concerns, including Paris ISD Police Chief Brad Ruthart, who said if officer involvement is required, it places his officers in a precarious legal situation.
“With all due respect, we felt that while the spirit of the mandate is noble and beneficial, the realities of its unintended consequences can far outweigh the good that you seek to accomplish,” he said. “We cannot be expected to enforce a mandate that is deemed illegal by the state of Texas.”
Parents speaking in opposition of masks echoed similar sentiments, saying a mask mandate would be illegal because the Texas Supreme Court upheld Abbott’s executive order, that masking should be a choice, that some children do not tolerate masks and that masking would reduce children’s excitement for school.