The Eanes ISD board of trustees met to discuss protocols for the 2021-22 school year Aug. 10, roughly a week before students are welcomed back to campus—some for the first time since March 2020.
Due to a month-long recess, trustees have not met since late June, and Superintendent Tom Leonard said much has changed since then. Austin Public Health announced Aug. 5 amid a recent surge in cases that it shifted the Austin-Travis County coronavirus risk to the highest level of Stage 5.
“Here’s what I think we know, we still have a bit of a storm,” Leonard told the board.
The district will continue several safety policies from the previous school year including increased cleaning, the promotion of physical distancing when possible and assigned seating on school busses, among other protocols. Personal protective equipment such as plexiglass and face shields will be available for students and staff. Leonard also said in an effort to be transparent, EISD will publish an online dashboard to display districtwide coronavirus cases—a deviation from initial plans released in July.
Similarly, EISD will report all positive coronavirus cases to APH but the district will halt contact tracing. Leonard said school districts no longer have the authority to require a student or staff member to quarantine after coming into close contact with a positive case.
EISD’s most notable departure from the previous year’s procedures is the decision not to mandate face masks. Such a requirement would violate Gov. Greg Abbott’s May 18 Executive Order that prohibits government entities such as school districts from implementing mask mandates.
Despite Abbott’s order, earlier this week districts including Austin and Dallas ISDs announced mask requirements for both students and staff. Leonard said he is aware that a portion of the EISD community is in favor of a mask mandate; however, enforcing this protocol would present challenges, which would likely fall on the backs of staff members.
“It’s extremely hard to ask a teacher, a coach, a staff member, even some in [human resources] to enforce something they’re going to have a difficult time finding a backing for,” Leonard said.
District community members are split on the subject of face masks. At the Aug. 10 meeting, trustees heard from several parents on both sides of the issue during an open forum session that spanned nearly an hour.
Among those parents was Joanna Schwartz, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Dell Children’s Medical Center. Schwartz, who has two children in the district, was one of several local parent physicians in attendance. She spoke to the current pandemic conditions amid new cases of the delta variant of COVID and told the board the number of children admitted to the hospital in the past month has tripled.
“I am making a plea to you as an ER doctor. We are drowning. There are 30 to 40 people in the waiting room when I walk in for a night shift. People wait 4 to 6 hours to be seen if they are not in extremis. Our hospital is full, the pediatric [intensive care unit] is full,” Schwartz said, adding that without masks the spread of COVID will tip the scales.
Other parents including Susan Tipton-Hines said she was not in favor of requiring masks, in part due to what she referred to as high survival and recovery rates among children who contract COVID.
In light of these differing opinions, trustee Heather Sheffield recommended the district conduct a community survey on masks, to which trustee Kim McMath agreed. Several trustees expressed concern regarding elementary school children under the age of 12 who cannot be vaccinated.
Board member Ellen Balthazar said she would like to see the district do more to ensure these student’s safety. She suggested putting up signs to encourage mask-wearing.
Balthazar said she wants to “air on the side of caution when it comes to the health and safety of our youngest students.''
Leonard said the district can make stronger statements on mask-wearing and vaccinations. Notably, EISD will host a future vaccine clinic for eligible students and staff. Additionally, If the board desires, the district could limit on-campus visitors and gatherings such as assemblies, though Leonard said he is not recommending that action at this time.