Despite concerns from the medical experts about the uptick in COVID-19 cases nationwide, Gov. Greg Abbott doubled down this week on his stance that Texas will not reinstate a mask mandate for campuses heading into the upcoming school year.
“Kids will not be forced by government — or by schools — to wear a mask in school,” Abbott said Tuesday during an interview with Houston’s NBC affiliate, KPRC-TV. “They can, by parental choice, wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks.”
While Abbott’s stance sits contrary to what the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called for in recent days — namely that students and staff, particularly those who are not vaccinated, wear masks while heading back into classrooms — the governor holds all the cards.
His executive order, issued in May, bars public schools and the Texas Education Agency from implementing any requirements on mask usage.
“It very much limits what we can require and ask for,” said Jennifer Finley, Dallas ISD’s director of health services.
As a more transmissible strain of COVID-19 spreads across Texas — with hospitalizations, positivity rates and outbreaks all on the rise — experts are concerned about what the return to school could mean for children and families when classes start in a few weeks.
“This pandemic is far from over, and we’re probably headed into another wave of COVID infections,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, the chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Health and professor at UT Southwestern. “So my advice to parents is to be as cautious as possible.”
‘A new phase’
Infectious disease experts in the Dallas area have watched the rise of the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus throughout the region for more than a month.
The delta variant, which originated in India, is 40% to 50% more transmissible than original SARS-CoV-2 strains.
While it hasn’t been found to increase the risk of hospitalization relative to those infected with other strains, delta’s ability to spread more efficiently and quickly through populations has doctors worried. It’s still unclear whether the emergence of the delta strain could lead to more “breakthrough” cases, where COVID-19 occurs regardless of vaccination or immunity from a prior infection.
Last month, the World Health Organization called the variant the “fastest and fittest” coronavirus strain yet. And in short order, the delta variant has become the most dominant strain of the virus in the United States.
Hospitalizations in North Texas due to COVID-19 are up 156% over the last month, according to the latest model from the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Nearly a thousand people were hospitalized with COVID in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as of July 19.
A recent model by UT Southwestern projected that Dallas County would see about 600 new COVID-19 cases a day by Aug. 9, one week before most schools return to face-to-face instruction.
“We’re entering a new phase in the COVID pandemic,” Kahn said. “The data we have from the CDC and other institutions that are monitoring COVID closely have shown that cases are going up in nearly every state. You don’t have to go back to more than four or five weeks ago, the trends in the vast majority of states were going downward.”
Vaccinations are the best protection against the new strain, experts say. But the pace of inoculations in Dallas County has slowed in recent weeks. According to the state, 51% of the county’s vaccine-eligible population is fully vaccinated.
“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,” said Abbott’s spokeswoman, Renae Eze, in a statement to The Dallas Morning News. “The COVID vaccine will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas.”
Not all students, however, can — or will — get vaccinated.
Over half of the state’s 5.4 million public school students are under 12 years old, according to data from the Texas Education Agency, making them ineligible to receive the vaccine at this time.
In acknowledging that gap, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its “return to school” guidance this week, recommending that all staff — and students over 2 — wear face masks in schools, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status. That opinion went further than the CDC’s recent update, which asked only for unvaccinated students and staff to mask up.
“In the absence of schools being able to conduct this monitoring, universal masking is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement, and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status,” the guidance read.
Abbott: It’s parents’ choice
In a spate of TV appearances this week, Abbott disregarded both the CDC’s and AAP’s recommendations, stating that decisions on whether children should wear masks were best left to parents.
“The people who are most responsible for the health of their children are the parents, and the parents have the right to make ... the choice about whether or not their child will be wearing a mask to school,” Abbott told Fox News.
In his interview with KPRC-TV, Abbott surmised that parents who are concerned about the delta variant — and have yet to get their child vaccinated — would do so as the start of the school year approaches.
When asked by The News what suggestions the governor had for families with children under 12, Eze did not respond directly.
“Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for government mandating of masks is over — now is the time for personal responsibility,” the statement read.
Districts, including Dallas ISD, have encouraged students and families to learn more about vaccines, providing pamphlets on vaccines and COVID-19 prevention at their campuses and using school sites as vaccination centers.
Two Dallas high schools, Samuell and Conrad, held second-shot clinics last week, said Finley, DISD’s health director.
“We’ll have information on campuses — but we realize it’s a very family-driven choice, and we understand that,” she said. “There’s so much misinformation out there about the vaccine. We’re putting out resources where families can go to … credible sources, instead of finding out about it on TikTok.”
Until Abbott revisits his executive order, Finley added, there’s little more that can be done except resume other preventive measures, such as good hand hygiene, not sending sick children to school and maintaining social distancing as best as the district “can abide.”
Doug Williams, Sunnyvale ISD superintendent and the president of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said his district considered reducing class sizes again but didn’t find that move practical at this point.
He pointed out that another preventive measure — returning to virtual schooling — was off the table, after the state Legislature failed to move on a bill that would have fully funded such instruction.
Last summer, state education commissioner Mike Morath used disaster powers to issue waivers that allowed Texas public schools to receive funding for virtual instruction. But that power is not available for the new school year, TEA officials said last month, after legislators amended state law to curb the commissioner’s reach.
Even so, Williams said he was cautiously optimistic about the start of the year. The existence of vaccines could make a difference in turning the tide, as opposed to last summer’s struggles, he noted.
Kahn, Children’s infectious disease chief, said he was optimistic that many of the current COVID-19 vaccines would be approved for younger children at some point this fall.
Nevertheless, while many parents will push their age-eligible students to receive a vaccine, another large swath will not, based on the recent politicization of the issue, he said.
“I’m afraid that there are going to be parents out there who are going to regret the decision not to vaccinate their children,” he said. “Children — although, in general, less prone to severe infection due to COVID — we do see severe COVID in children. Not vaccinating your child is essentially not projecting them against the chance that they may get severe disease. This is a safe vaccine. The benefits of the vaccine far, far, far exceed any of the risks.”
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