Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth school districts, along with Houston-area districts, have implemented mask mandates for all school personnel and students despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s July executive order that bans any government entity from enforcing a mask or vaccine mandate. Rigid state-level mandates such as a ban on mask mandates do not make Texas schools safer, and more districts should follow the lead of these superintendents by reinstating a mask mandate to protect children during this alarming surge of COVID-19.
More than 8,000 COVID-19 patients in Texas are now hospitalized — about the same number of people hospitalized last year when the state implemented a statewide mask mandate. It is true that the current COVID-19 surge has not affected all communities the same. For example, El Paso has much lower rates of hospitalization than Austin and Dallas, where hospitals have few available beds for patients. The variation in COVID-19 infections across the state means that school districts should make decisions about mask mandates based on local information and input.
All districts should consider a mask mandate. We don’t know which community might be hit hard next. Texas Children’s Hospital has diagnosed approximately 15,000 children with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with about 10% of those children ending up in hospitals — a third of those hospitalized in critical care. Doctors and researchers are still not sure what might be the long-term effects of COVID-19 for children or adults.
Due to the highly contagious delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized the benefit of in-person learning but recommended “universal indoor masking [for] all students (ages 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors of K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” The recommendation by the CDC is for all schools, not just communities experiencing a surge. Texas should follow the recommendation.
Abbott has argued that Texans “have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks.”
We believe a policy that values parental rights in a large state like Texas would allow parents to decide at the local level where their voices can truly be heard.
Other governors have banned mask mandates, but as COVID-19 cases surged, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has worked to eliminate this ban, reflecting that “In hindsight, I wish that [a ban on mask mandates] had not become law.”
It is a shame that masking has been made into a political issue. Many Republican governors have reinstated mask mandates for schools or allowed local districts to make decisions, such as in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, among several others. Perhaps these states have also recognized that individual parental rights should not be the singular priority of policy.
We need to keep in mind that superintendents are responsible for the health and safety of all employees and students, which means individual parental rights cannot override the rights of other parents, children and personnel whose lives may be at greater risk from COVID-19.
For example, parents of children with compromised immune systems may feel differently. School personnel who are pregnant or raising small children currently ineligible to receive the vaccine may feel they are putting their families in jeopardy by going to work inside with no mask during a serious surge.
This fall marks the third school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and every precaution must be taken. One of us was a school administrator and recalls the worst possible day as an educator: learning of an eighth-grade student’s passing, having to tell faculty members and students, and grieving. We are pained to think of educators and children going through such an ordeal because of a ban on mask mandates during a surge.
Now is the time to demand that state leaders use the best available science and evidence to protect our children. Masks save lives, COVID-19 is once again raging, and the loss of one child that could be prevented by a mask is one too many.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.
David S. Knight is an assistant professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Waco Tribune Herald, and the Eagle.