Masked and ready to start the new academic year, students in Austin’s Eanes Independent School District returned to campuses excited to reunite with friends and meet their new teachers.
“Campus principals report several ‘magical moments,’” Tom Leonard, the superintendent, said in a note to parents and staff on Tuesday, one day before the district’s first day of school.
But there were also “a few sad moments” at recent school events, he qualified.
Some parents physically and verbally assaulted teachers because of masks. One parent ripped a teacher’s mask off her face, Leonard said. Others yelled at another teacher to remove her mask because they claimed it made it difficult to understand what she was saying.
“This type of behavior will not be tolerated in Eanes ISD,” Leonard wrote Tuesday. “Our staff are on the front lines of this pandemic; let’s give them some space and grace. Please, I am asking everyone to be kind . . . do not fight mask wars in our schools.”
The incidents reflect the growing tensions around mask mandates in schools as students return for the new academic year while coronavirus cases surge. Last week, a parent in California allegedly yelled at a school principal over mask requirements and then struck a teacher. The parent is now banned from school grounds.
Covid cases in Texas continue to rise, driven by the highly contagious delta variant. In the past week, cases rose 11 percent and hospitalizations increased by 21 percent, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has pushed to ban mask mandates in schools, announced Tuesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Earlier this month, the state requested five mortuary trailers as hospitals anticipate a dramatic spike in covid-related deaths. As of Monday, the Austin area had only three available intensive care unit beds, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services covid dashboard. Deaths in the state have jumped by more than 64 percent in the last week, data from The Post’s covid-19 tracker shows.
Despite the dramatic increase and evidence showing that children are now more likely to contract the virus because of the more contagious delta variant, executive orders from Republican governors banning mask mandates have restricted some schools’ protective measures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends students, teachers and staff at K-12 schools wear masks indoors.
Some counties in Texas, including Travis County – the home of Eanes ISD – have defied the governor’s order. Earlier this week, the Dallas Independent School District superintendent said schools would require students and staff to wear face coverings despite the Texas Supreme Court siding with the governor in a battle over mask mandates. Similarly, Bexar County in San Antonio will also require masks in public and private schools after a judge there granted a temporary injunction on Abbott’s executive order.
Stephanie Elizalde, the superintendent of Austin Independent School District wrote in an essay for Time that she was mandating masks because the situation in the city is “dire.”
“I cannot live with a tragedy occurring because I was afraid of the possible consequences of defying part of the governor’s order,” she wrote. “I realize, of course, that the governor’s executive order may mean that we will be fined for requiring masks. I’d rather pay money than risk a child’s life.”
At least four school districts in the state have closed over covid outbreaks.
Gorman Independent School District, about 100 miles southwest of Fort Worth, was supposed to resume school on Wednesday, but the superintendent announced Monday the district was pushing the start date to Aug. 25. The Bloomburg school district in East Texas also announced Monday it was closing for a week after several teachers tested positive for the coronavirus just eight days into the academic year. An elementary school in Waskom, Texas, a town of almost 2,000 people about 60 miles south of Bloomburg, also temporarily shut down this week, along with Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District in the western part of the state.
In his note to the Eanes ISD community, superintendent Leonard noted that wearing masks in schools is vital to preventing hospitalizations since “medical personnel are under extreme pressure,” he said, adding, “We are doing our part to help.”
Leonard went on to applaud the “vast majority” of students and staff who have been wearing masks on school grounds.
“Mandate or no mandate . . . children and adults in our schools are doing what they believe is best for themselves and our community,” he said.
Leonard implored community members to refrain from violence, regardless of whether they agree with mask policies.
“The children are watching and learning how we behave,” he said, “so let’s make the time our students spend in school a joyful and positive experience.”