UPDATE: Chisum ISD met today at 12:15 to discuss the mask mandate removal. The story has been updated to reflect this.
The lifting of Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate Wednesday as active Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to fall has left the decision as to whether to require students to wear masks up to local school boards.
It’s been one year since schools shut down just as Covid-19 was discovered in the U.S. As part of Texas’s reopening strategy last spring, Abbott instituted a statewide mask mandate backed by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The Texas Education Agency followed suit, requiring masks for all but the youngest students on campuses.
Paris ISD Superintendent Paul Jones on Monday told trustees the TEA updated its guidelines shortly after Abbott’s announcement last week, and the only changes involved the frequency of building disinfecting and leaving the decision about masking to local school boards.
“No one wants Covid to go away more than anyone in this room. We’re tired of it. We’re tired of the masks, but we still have in place quarantine,” he said. “If we didn’t have masks on and one child was in class (with Covid), we’d have to quarantine the whole class. If it was a high school students going to eight classes, we’d have to quarantine all eight classes.”
The Paris-Lamar County Health District recommended that Paris ISD keep its mask mandate in place for now, Jones told trustees, though the decision was ultimately the board’s. The superintendent said he will update the board on the situation monthly as more vaccines become available.
Jones said teachers recently began receiving their vaccines, and efforts would continue to get doses to more teachers and staff.
David Cox, a Paris ISD parent, spoke to trustees about the district’s mask requirements, saying his son is learning remotely because he has trouble wearing cloth masks. Cox pointed to his son’s face shield, telling trustees that if his son could wear a shield rather than a mask, he could return to school. He reminded trustees that TEA “passed the buck” to the board, adding that “developmentally being able to handle this muzzle for an entire day is very destructive.” Cox also raised concerns that students were required to wear a mask during Physical Education classes, and TEA has allowed an exemption for that class. He said his daughter, who still regularly attends school on campus, is kept home on PE days.
Because the comments were allowed as an impromptu public comment, trustees listened to the comments but did not respond.
Elsewhere in Lamar County, the more rural Prairiland ISD decided Tuesday was the last day students would be required to wear masks. Superintendent Jeff Ballard said the district will continue to “highly encourage anyone that wants to wear a mask to do so.” The district surveyed parents on the subject, and the “overwhelming majority” asked the district to do away with masks, he said.
“We realize that there are still some concerns about this, but in the end, it was decided to no longer mandate masks,” Ballard said. “If we see a rise in positive cases and quarantines, we can change back to wearing masks.”
Prairiland ISD will continue all other protocols, such as disinfecting desks, limiting visitors to campuses, social distancing at lunch, etc., Ballard said.
After today’s press deadline, the Chisum ISD board voted to recommend masks but not require them.
The board met at lunchtime, with three of the members appearing via Zoom, to discuss masks. Superintendent Tommy Chalaire said they polled teachers, staff and administrators, and an overwhelming 85% wanted to recommend masks only, not require them. His recommendation to the board was to lift the requirement.
“This is based on the availability of shots and teachers being able to be eligible for the vaccine,” Chalaire said. “We welcome the masks, but we don’t require the masks.”
The board then voted, passing the recommendation 5-2, with Paul Hutto and Matt Patterson dissenting. The district will still practice other health and safety measures, like hand sanitizer and social distancing.
North Lamar ISD have planned a meetings to address student masking, at 7:30 a.m. March 22 at the district’s administrative building, 3130 N. Main St. in Paris. Until then, North Lamar will continue to follow its existing health and safety protocols that require face masks on all district campuses.
“TEA clarified that the use of a mask or facial covering is still required when inside a school building, school facility and facility used for school activities. It is stated in the guidance that the governing board of a school system may modify or eliminate by formal action the above mask-related requirements,” said Carla Coleman, the district’s public relations director. “We understand that our community feels passionately about all sides of this issue. We would like to thank our staff, students, and parents for their flexibility and understanding throughout this challenging school year.”
Although schools in Fannin, Delta and Red River counties are on spring break this week, Clarksville ISD has already decided to continue to require masks on campus. Superintendent Kermit Ward said the decision will affect school for the remainder of the year. As a result of hosting a vaccine clinic Friday, district teachers gained access to the Covid-19 vaccine.
“I actually think we have everyone who wants a shot with one now as the shot clinic still had extras and we were able to ask people in the community if they wanted one,” Ward said.
Detroit ISD Superintendent Kathie Thompson said no decision has been made since the district is on spring break, however, she plans to work with staff, administrators and the school board next week to determine the best decision for students. She also said staff gained access to vaccines last week after several agencies reached out about having available doses.
“We worked with our staff so they could make their appointments. We have a few staff members that are waiting on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. They should be able to get that one soon,” Thompson said.
Attempts to contact Rivercrest, Cooper and Honey Grove ISDs were unsuccessful.