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Texas schools can’t require masks despite COVID. Some Fort Worth parents are worried.

·9 min read

With weeks left before the beginning of Fort Worth’s school year, Alex Vorse must deal with a hard decision.

Vorse’s daughter, Hazel, is a student at Daggett Montessori School. Last year, Vorse kept her home after Fort Worth schools allowed students to come back in person. Hazel has an underlying medical condition that would put her at greater risk if she caught COVID-19, Vorse said, and he’s worried about the possibility of her being exposed to the virus at school.

Remote learning seemed like the safest option, he said, and his daughter took to it easily.

This year, Vorse may not have that option. Fort Worth school officials don’t plan to offer a remote learning option for the upcoming school year, meaning all students will have to come back to school in person. District officials can no longer enforce mask requirements this year, meaning Vorse has no assurances that other students in his daughter’s class would be masked.

That leaves Vorse in a difficult position. They worry that sending Hazel to school in person without a mask mandate in place could put her at risk. But if he pulled her out of school and kept her at home, they would forfeit her seat at Daggett Montessori.

“It’s an impossible choice for a parent in my position,” Vorse said. “My daughter has an underlying medical condition. A positive COVID case could mean hospitalization or worse.”

Fort Worth students return to school Aug. 16. With cases of COVID-19 rising in Tarrant County, some parents are worried about the prospect of sending their students back into classrooms where teachers have fewer tools to keep the virus in check.

Fort Worth schools won’t offer remote option

Vorse said Hazel’s teacher did a great job of making remote students feel included last year. Each morning, she led conversations about current events and other topics before the class moved on to the material they were covering that day. At the end of each week, Hazel and her classmates each presented a project they’d worked on that week.

“She just lit up at that,” he said.

Vorse had hoped Hazel would have the option of continuing with remote learning this year, at least until the vaccine is approved for younger children. But the Texas Legislature didn’t allocate money for districts to continue the online learning programs they began last year. Some districts, including Austin and Round Rock, have announced they will self-fund virtual learning options for students up to 6th grade. But Fort Worth school officials have said they expect to bring all students back in person on the first day of school.

District spokesman Clint Bond said Wednesday the district has no plans for remote learning for the upcoming year. The district, like other districts across the state, saw a decline in STAAR test scores last year, due at least in part to the academic effects of the pandemic. The district’s plan for helping students catch up requires that teachers be connected with their students daily to make sure they understand the curriculum, Bond said.

During the Fort Worth school district’s Board of Trustees meeting July 27, Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner said students and parents are excited about coming back to school in person. That return to school will be critical for helping students who struggled last year recover academically, he said. But he acknowledged the district is “going to have to be creative” in dealing with students who are medically fragile.

Bond said district administrators are reviewing policies to come up with recommendations for parents of students at schools of choice with underlying conditions that place them at heightened risk.

Abbott’s order bars Texas schools from mandating masks

Bond also noted that the district’s safety protocols were effective enough last year that the district never needed to close a campus due to a COVID-19 outbreak. All those precautions will be in place this year, he said, with the exception of a mask mandate.

School officials will continue to encourage students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear masks, Bond said, though the district can no longer require it. Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in May barring school districts from enforcing mask mandates after June 4.

On July 20, Abbott told KPRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Houston, that he wouldn’t impose another mask mandate, despite the rise in new cases across Texas and nationwide. Neither the government nor schools will force children to wear masks at school, Abbott said, although parents may choose to have their children wear masks at school. Public health experts have said for months that, though masks offer the wearer some protection, their primary function is to keep others safe if the wearer is unknowingly infected.

Abbott also said he expects more parents will take their children to get the vaccine before the beginning of the school year. But children younger than 12 aren’t yet eligible to receive the vaccine. When asked what advice the governor has for parents of children who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze didn’t answer the question, but instead responded with an emailed statement saying the governor “has been clear that the time for government mandating of masks is over — now is the time for personal responsibility.”

“Vaccines are the most effective defense against contracting COVID and becoming seriously ill, and we continue to urge all eligible Texans to get the vaccine,” she said. “The COVID vaccine will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas.”

When the Star-Telegram pointed out that the statement didn’t address the question of what parents of children under 12 should do to keep their children safe at school, Eze offered no response.

Abbott’s order runs counter to guidance issued last month by public health officials. On July 19, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidance for the 2021-22 school year, recommending masking in schools for everyone older than age 2, regardless of vaccination status. On July 27, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also updated its guidance to recommend universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

State Democrats have urged the governor to reconsider his position.

On July 24, Rep. Vikki Goodwin, a Travis County Democrat, and 31 other Texas Democrats penned a letter calling on Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to allow school districts to require masks in school buildings. The lawmakers also called on the governor and education commissioner to allow districts to implement virtual instruction for students who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Citing the highly transmissible delta variant, the lawmakers noted that districts tried to slow the spread of the virus last year by using a “Swiss cheese” model of protection, layering several prevention methods on top of each other so that each covers gaps left by the others.

“This year is poised to offer quite a contrast: in the face of an aggressive new strain of COVID-19, schools have had most of their tools taken away,” the lawmakers wrote. “As those who represent school districts and parents with grave concerns about returning their children to school under the current conditions, we ask on their behalf that you do the right thing in order to ensure the safety of school communities and the best possible education for Texas children.”

On July 27, Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina called on Abbott to allow school districts to implement mask mandates. Texas teachers are eager to get back to work, Molina said, but the pandemic still presents a danger, especially since young students can’t be vaccinated.

“If Gov. Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” Molina said.

Amid delta variant spread, parents worry about COVID at school

During a school trustees meeting, Lark Wallis-Johnston called on the board to find a solution for families who could be put at risk.

Wallis-Johnston told the Star-Telegram her family has been cautious during the pandemic because her husband has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. During a group counseling session for children whose parents have cancer, her son asked tearfully what would happen if he caught the virus at school and inadvertently brought it home to his father. Wallis-Johnston’s heart sank.

“I don’t have a good answer for you,” she told him. “But I’m going to do everything I can to keep us safe.”

Wallis-Johnston asked the board to help her keep that promise. Many students in the district must be at school in person, she said. But district officials need to remember that most students in the district can’t yet be vaccinated, she said, and some of those students and their families would be at heightened risk if COVID-19 made its way into their homes.

“If you cannot enforce a mask mandate at all the schools, then there must be an option for all our fragile families,” she said.

Vorse, the Daggett Montessori father, said he hopes the district can find a solution to the problem that wouldn’t force him to choose between putting his daughter at risk by sending her to school and pulling her out of school and forfeiting her seat there. He’d like to see the district push back on Abbott’s mask mandate or come up with a remote option for students like Hazel. At minimum, he hopes the district will allow her to stay home temporarily and still keep her seat at Daggett Montessori.

If the district won’t do any of those things, Vorse said it would leave him with a hard decision to make. As difficult as it would be to forfeit Hazel’s seat at the school, he knows her safety has to be his highest priority.

“We’d rather be going in person,” Vorse said. “But until she can be vaccinated, especially with an underlying medical condition, it’s just not safe.”

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