DALLAS — The resistance is underway in Texas and growing by the day. And expect to see more school districts and local governments enacting mask mandates as the Delta variant continues its march through Texas.
The Austin ISD’s mask requirement kicked in August 11. And Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde says she’s heard from plenty of folks since the decision.
“Overwhelmingly, the response has been actually extremely supportive, even with some of the individuals who don't necessarily agree. They've started some of their communication, for instance, emails I've received with ‘I know you're in an impossible situation.’ But they go on to express what their perspective is. And I'm hopeful, that gives me hope that we can work through this,” Dr. Elizalde said on Y’all-itics.
Dr. Elizalde says it’s quite the balancing act between freedom and safety so the decision to require masks wasn’t a quick one or taken lightly. And she stresses it is not permanent. While she’s not sure exactly how long it will last, it will certainly remain in place while the city of Austin is in stage 5 COVID restrictions.
The superintendent also says she’s not excited to be defying a Governor’s order.
“As an educator, frankly in many instances, we’re rule followers right? I mean that's what we did as classroom teachers. We create expectations of behaviors and outcomes. And so, by nature I'm a rule follower,” she explained. “So for me to have done this, anyone who really knows me knows that this was something that I was like, this really is not something I wanted to do. It was something I needed to do.”
Before enacting a mask mandate, the Austin ISD had already decided to offer virtual learning even though the district will have to pay for it. Dr. Elizalde says the district received more than 7,000 applications to learn remotely. More than 700 of those families have now changed their minds and will send their kids into the classroom because of the mask requirement. One interesting side note on the virtual learning applications, around 2,500 of them came from out of district, meaning children from other parts of the state are trying to enroll in Austin ISD.
Those numbers also help to illustrate why Dr. Elizalde doesn’t even think of this as a mask issue. She sees it as an issue over local control. And she and plenty of other Superintendents in Texas think independent school districts should have some independence and maintain control over local decisions that are best for their communities.
“Because what may be right in Austin ISD may not be right in Lubbock, or in Pampa, or in Roscoe, TX, or in Midland. This is about our locally elected officials to a school board and the fact that the state constitution thought that public school was so important they were going to delegate and create ISDs so that there would be a local influence to the way in which processes were actually implemented in school districts,” said Superintendent Elizalde.
Dr. Brian Woods is the Superintendent of Northside ISD, a district with more than 100,000 students in San Antonio and Bexar County. He, too, says there is no way trustees, administrators and teachers can do their jobs effectively without some element of local control.
“When I've got a group of kids who by no choice of their own cannot or have not received a vaccine, I’ve got to do something to protect those kids, right? I have a fundamental responsibility to protect those kids,” Dr. Woods told the Jasons. “And if you give me a little bit of authority to do it, I think I can do it well. I think I can keep kids in school, physically in school, and I think I can start to make up for some of the losses that we all saw over the last 15 months.”
The district itself has yet to make a decision on masks. But after a judge granted city and county officials a temporary restraining order against Governor Abbott’s directive, those officials announced facemasks would be required inside public schools in Bexar County.
And unlike many districts across Texas, Northside ISD still plans to contact trace during the year, so parents, students and staff will be notified if they are a close contact.
“We still plan to quarantine students who are in close contact,” he said. “What I don't want folks to come away with is it's either masks or we're unsafe, right? There are other things that can happen.”
One thing these two Superintendents share is frustration. And they have that in common with millions of Texas parents, whether they’re for or against masks.
“It is exactly as distracting as the exact same time a year ago, frankly, where we were flying the plane and building it at the same time and that is frustrating, right? Here we are in mid-August and we're still making these rather basic decisions about who has control over these decisions? What are the decisions going to be? When will they be announced? And imagine if it's distracting to us how concerning that is to teachers and parents who are going to end up being the tip of the sword on whatever gets decided by whatever public official,” Dr. Woods said.
Dr. Elizalde says she usually gets butterflies in her stomach at the start of a new school year. This year, she likens it more to moths. And both leaders talk more about how they’re not happy Republican politicians in Austin are trying to make decisions for them… even though local control used to be GOP gospel. Hear it all in our emergency episode of Y’all-itics. Cheers!