At least 100 community members filled Clear Creek ISD’s League City boardroom and surrounding area Aug. 23 to listen to several dozen parents share their insights on mask mandates and the district's response to COVID-19, among other topics.

Board President Jay Cunningham could not recall another meeting with this kind of turnout in the several years he has been a trustee, he said Aug. 24. Public comment lasted about an hour with applause being heard for speakers both supporting and opposing mask mandates.

While no agenda or action items on mask mandates or COVID-19-related guidance were part of the meeting, district leaders engaged in conversation after public comment about 2021-22 health protocols. Leila Sarmecanic, the district’s general counsel, said at the meeting the legal uncertainty surrounding mask mandates would make them difficult to enforce in CCISD.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a mask mandate Aug. 12 stating all public and nonreligious private schools, along with licensed child care centers, must follow the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the use of masks. Galveston County has issued no similar order; CCISD has schools in both counties. petitions have circulated from parents both for and against mask mandates. The petition asking for a mandate had just more than 1,700 signatures as of the evening of Aug. 26; the petition calling for masks to remain optional had just more than 600 at that time.

This time last year, the district delaying a full return to in-person instruction spurred similar community outcry from some parents. Roughly two dozen community members came to board meetings to share their thoughts in August 2020, Cunningham recalled Aug. 24—about half of the amount of people who spoke earlier this week.

Community input

About 40 people spoke at the Aug. 23 public comment, and more than 75% of those speakers shared their concerns about COVID-19, mask mandates, health and safety protocols, or vaccine clinics in schools.

Hidden Lakes resident Glenn Schwem wants for his third- and first-grade children to be able to experience a protocol-free year like in prepandemic times, he told Community Impact Newspaper prior to the meeting. As some Houston-area ISDs defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates, he and other parents are concerned about CCISD doing the same.

“I think at some point somebody’s going to say, ‘What the heck are you fighting for?’” he said prior to the meeting, in reference to no mask mandate being on the table for board consideration. “In a nutshell, it’s personal choice.”

Schwem is not interested in parents or district leaders “playing doctor,” he said, but he is against the idea of a mask mandate since the effects and consequences of such a mandate on children are unknown.

“These guys are burdened by it,” he said of young learners. “We’re certainly not against folks wearing masks, but you do you; let me do me.”

Schewm and several more parents spoke Aug. 23 to ask the district to steer clear of a mask mandate.

“I implore you: continue to keep our children free from these mandates and allow parents to choose what is best for our family,” Constance Miller said during public comment. “A choice is all any of us want.”

Other parents, including several who said they worked in the medical field or had advanced degrees in public health, encouraged the board to implement a mask mandate.

“There’s a lot of emotion here tonight. ... I know everyone loves their children,” said James Patterini, a district parent, NASA flight surgeon and internal medicine physician, who also said masking is proven to be safe and effective. “I only ask that when it comes to public health and risk management, you listen to the medical doctors and epidemiologists in your community and you do what is right instead of what is clearly popular.”

Candace Smith, who said she represented more than 2,000 concerned parents and community members, gave the board packets she said contained statistics, letters from doctors addressing the district, anonymous letters from teachers and input from parents.

One student, Hendrix Perkins, spoke against a mask mandate.

Erin O’Connell, a ninth-grader from Clear Brook High School, spoke in favor of a mandate, emphasizing how medically fragile students such as herself are burdened by fear of illness in the classroom.

“Now that we finally get a chance to enjoy the things that we missed out on, we have to worry about the kid next to us coughing who doesn’t have a mask on,” O’Connell said, describing how it feels being back to school in person. “We should only have to worry about being kids. For the sake of students attending your schools, please issue a mask mandate.”

Trustee response

Cunningham told Community Impact Newspaper on Aug. 24 his sense of where district parents and community members stand regarding masks has not changed after the board meeting.

Viewpoints remain mixed, and he wants to remain committed to thinking and communicating in a flexible manner so he can try to understand all of them, he said. This includes his social media posting, he added: He and other board members have solicited feedback via Facebook in recent weeks.

“From both sides, the rhetoric is large,” he said.

He encouraged concerned parents to direct their energy statewide, contact their representatives and advocate for action at the legislative level.

When it comes to mask mandates specifically, the district’s in-house and outside legal counsel both agree defying the governor’s order is not feasible for CCISD, Cunningham said.

“CCISD will not be defying the governor’s order, period,” he said. “It supersedes anything at the local level.”

The board takes in information about district finances, state guidelines and other policies from various CCISD leaders, he said during the meeting. Based on how pandemic-related conflicts were navigated in 2020-21, he believes district leaders have the knowledge, skills and flexibility to be successful headed into the new year.

“I will not tell you that we will not face challenges because we will,” Cunningham said to the community Aug. 23, adding the 2021-22 school year will require adaptation from all, just like 2020-21. "But I am confident that we will get it done and do it together.”

The board meeting can be watched in full on the district’s Vimeo page.