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North Texas school districts fielding flood of questions as COVID cases surge weeks before return

Many parents have questions over virtual learning and masks, but districts have very little control over both.

FORT WORTH, Texas — In school board meetings, parent teacher associations and Facebook groups across Texas, the same concerns are playing out.

“The current position of the district is simple: get sick or get out,” said Alex Vorse, a Fort Worth ISD parent who spoke at the district’s board meeting Tuesday.

“We all want normalcy, but we’re not there yet,” Lark Wallis Johnston, another FWISD parent said. “We’re not vaccinated.”

COVID hospitalizations in Texas and the North Texas region have nearly tripled in the past three weeks. In Lubbock, they’re up almost 500% over that span. 

Tuesday, the CDC changed its guidance to recommend students, teachers and staff wear masks regardless of vaccination status in areas of high or substantial spread, which is every county in North Texas.

RELATED: CDC reverses course on indoor masks in parts of US where COVID is surging

In the Texas, though, they’ll stay optional. 

“There will not be another mask mandate in Texas,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in an interview with WFAA last week.

Abbott told WFAA he won’t remove his ban on districts requiring masks. 

Tuesday, after the new CDC guidance and a request from the Texas Teachers Association to remove the ban, Abbott tweeted: 

“The time for government mask mandates is over—now is the time for personal responsibility. In May, I signed an executive order prohibiting mask mandates by gov't entities. Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.” 

RELATED: Texas teachers' group calls on Gov. Abbott to allow school districts to require masks

Due to no mask mandate, many parents have pushed for a virtual learning option, but state lawmakers didn’t fund virtual learning for the upcoming year, and Gov. Abbott did not add it to the state’s special session.

“We are getting questions about it,” Fort Worth ISD spokesperson Clint Bond said about the upcoming school year. “We’re looking forward to having children back in classrooms.”

Like last year, Fort Worth ISD says it’s using upgraded hygiene practices, HEPA air filters and contact tracing to limit spread and are telling parents to talk to principals about specific concerns.

“We are going to social distance as best we can,” Bond said. “In some places we’re confined by space.”

The CDC says in-person school can be done safely with proper ventilation including air filters and opening doors, at least three feet of distance, testing and tracing and wearing masks.

Children under 12 still can’t be protected by vaccination, and those families have few options. 

“My husband has cancer,” Wallis Johnston said in FWISD’s board meeting. “I had to look at my 10-year-old with tears streaming down his face when he said, 'Mommy what if I get COVID from someone at school and bring it home to dad.'”

“Lead and act now to protect vulnerable children,” said Vorse.

With three weeks before school starts, the same concerns continue to echo, but so far, there are few solutions for families and districts.

Every school district will be slightly different in its plans this year. Several have shared new guidance they’re giving to families: 

Denton ISD

Denton ISD says it will use federal money to fund virtual learning for the roughly 350 K-8 students already enrolled in its virtual academy. They would like to be able to expand it if granted a waiver, but TEA officials say they are not able to grant a waiver due to new legislation passed this year. The district is not taking out of district students for its virtual program.

Its full health guidance is online.

Mesquite ISD

A district spokesperson said, “One of our highest priorities at Mesquite ISD is to keep our students and staff safe and secure. Our district’s leadership is in constant communication with local, state and health officials regarding COVID-19 and other health-related matters. At this point, masks in Mesquite ISD are strongly recommended but not required. The district believes, and student performance suggests, that in-person learning is the best option for most students. At this time, Mesquite ISD has no plans to offer virtual learning for the upcoming school year; however, from our experience in the 2020-21 school year, our campuses are well prepared for that mode of learning in the case of an emergency.”

The district’s full plan is online.

Grand Prairie ISD

Grand Prairie ISD has also posted its guidance for the upcoming school year on its website.