The meeting began on a stern note, with board President Barbara Stroud asking people in attendance who had taken off their masks to put them back on.
"Masks are required, and I see that some people are not willing to follow that policy," Stroud said. "It is considered a criminal offense for a person with intent to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting to substantially obstruct or interfere with the ordinary conduct of the meeting by physical action or verbal utterance, and thereby curtail the exercise of others' First Amendment rights."
Some audience members applauded Stroud's warning. But applause also broke out after most speakers who admonished the board to reconsider the district's mask policy, many of whom expressed concern about their children's emotional well-being.
"I'm here to advocate for parental choice," said parent Aaron Buzali. "Those parents who have consulted with their doctors and believe that their kids must wear a face mask every day, eight hours a day, indefinitely, have a right to do just that. Those of us who have reached a different conclusion should be afforded the choice."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that children over the age of 2 wear masks in child care settings. Regionally, Austin-Travis County's interim health authority Mark Escott has consistently said that masks prevent classroom spread of the coronavirus, and that most outbreaks in Austin-area schools have sprung from extracurricular activities where students went unmasked.
In a spring survey conducted by DSISD's COVID-19 Preparedness Team, 66.3% of parents said it should not be required for students under age 10 to wear masks for the rest of the school year, and 62.3% of parents said it should not be required for students over 10 to do so. However, a majority of teachers and staff differed on the subject: 54.6% said they would be uncomfortable or were unsure of their comfort level working at school if students over 10 were unmasked, and nearly 70% said they would be uncomfortable if children under 10 were unmasked.
Some parents who spoke at the April 26 meeting, however, said teachers' comfort levels were less relevant now that they had had the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
"I was willing to temporarily ask my kids to endure hard things while I knew that the teachers have few options. But I am not willing to quietly continue to watch harm being done to them because it makes people feel safer," said Sarah Balena, a Rooster Springs Elementary School parent.
Since the meeting, a group of 64 parents has announced the intent to pursue legal action against the district if the mask rules are not relaxed, as first reported by the Dripping Springs Century News. The parents are represented by the New York-based firm Siri & Glimstad. An April 27 letter from the firm asserts that the district's policy is in violation of Gov. Greg Abbott's March 2 executive order lifting a statewide mask mandate.
However, the Texas Education Agency has allowed individual school districts to choose whether to implement a mask policy since Abbot's order. One neighboring district, Wimberley ISD, voted April 19 to make masks optional for elementary school students beginning this week and to make masks optional for all students, faculty and staff at the end of the school year. Another neighbor, Eanes ISD, has set a meeting for May to consider whether to make masks optional for students and staff participating in summer programming. Other local districts, including Austin ISD, have not discussed changes to mask requirements.
The COVID-19 Preparedness Team had already announced plans to relax certain health and safety protocols prior to the meeting. On April 16, the district announced that masks would be optional for students engaging in socially distanced outdoor physical activity during school beginning May 3. Additionally, social distancing rules will be reduced from 6 feet to 3 feet, in accordance with the most recent CDC guidelines, and capacity for events—including graduation—was expanded.
The COVID-19 Preparedness Team is scheduled to meet again the first week in May and will continue to evaluate health conditions and associated policies, according to a statement from the district.
"The DSISD administration and board understands that members of our community have differing opinions on safety protocols that are in place at our schools," the statement said. "We all want to return to our normal lives, but as a district we are approaching that transition responsibly by 'stair-stepping' with our protocol updates. We continue to be committed to protecting the health and safety of our staff and students."