While a dozen people showed up to a mid-week Hutto ISD board meeting to voice their anti-mask mandate stance, officials spent the bulk of the meeting clarifying new COVID-19 district policy.
At the Aug. 25 meeting, citizens expressed frustration toward the new policy for myriad reasons, including a perceived loss of control over raising their children to masks acting as a hindrance toward learning.
However, HISD Superintendent Celina Estrada Thomas said Aug. 26 there were just as many parents who spoke in favor of a mask mandate during an Aug. 19 emergency meeting.
The mandate went into effect Aug. 23 and requires all students, staff and visitors to wear a mask when inside a district facility and within 6 feet of others, with some exceptions for meals, athletic events and after-school activities.
During discussion Aug. 25, HISD parent Jason Nichols said he is worried his 5-year-old son and other children his age are missing out on valuable language development because they and their teachers are wearing masks.
Nichols said he began researching homeschooling after the mask mandate was announced and will be removing his children from their schools next week.
He also encouraged other parents to consider homeschooling.
"A system that would do this cannot be fixed," Nichols said. "I plead with you to leave it."
Following the 45-minute public comment period, Thomas delivered a safety plan update on the district’s COVID-19 safety measures and addressed speakers’ concerns.
Thomas said the district is only practicing "soft enforcement" of the mask mandate for now.
Essentially, she said that in addition to medical exemptions, students whose parents have instructed them not to wear a mask will not be asked to wear one.
Instead, they will be offered alternative face coverings or allowed to sit in a designated area of the classroom.
Other safety guidelines within the district require staff members to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to work if they come in close contact with someone who tests positive.
Additionally, students who show symptoms or come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 will be sent home for 10 days, but they may return earlier if they provide a negative test result or an alternative diagnosis.
While generally in favor of the new safety guidelines, Thomas said unintended consequences have already emerged in the district.
Focusing primarily on health and safety forces teachers to divert some of their attention from instruction, and frequent student absences due to close contact policies make it more difficult to offer personalized support.
Financially, lower enrollment numbers could cause budget shortfalls, she said, and added teachers being out more often means the district must pay more for substitute teachers.
"Supporting students in classes with [student] vacancies—we currently have eight [classes]—is requiring some significant time and creativity," Thomas said.