Humble ISD will require students, staff and faculty to continue wearing face coverings on campuses, district facilities and school events, officials decided at the March 9 school board meeting. However, the board is set to discuss the item again at the April school board meeting.

At a press conference in early March, Gov. Greg Abbott announced an end to the statewide mask mandate beginning Wednesday, March 10. Shortly after, the Texas Education Agency released updated health guidance that recommended masks continue to be worn but added school boards have the authority to determine their local mask policy.

Board President Robert Sitton said the district has focused on doing what is right for students and staff members during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"What we've done though is taken a common sense approach to everything we've done in regards to COVID[-19]," he said. "It's about really taking into an account what is right for our community and taking that common sense approach. And at the end of the day, it is putting kids first. That's what we do."

Humble ISD's mask policy

At the March 9 meeting, HISD trustees unanimously voted to create their own mask policy as to not adhere to the TEA's mask guidelines regarding mask use outdoors—which were reportedly more strict than the district previously had in place. The district's mask policy continues to require students, staff and campus visitors to cover their faces on campuses and district facilities and at district events when it is not feasible to maintain 6 feet of distance.

However, the district's mask policy does not apply to any person younger than 10 years old, or those with a medical condition or disability. Individuals also do not have to wear masks when they are consuming food or drinks; actively exercising or engaging in physical activity; a spectator at an outdoor event; broadcasting or speaking to an audience; or engaging in an activity where it is impractical to wear a mask or face shield.

Although trustees voiced varying opinions on the mandate, all seven members agreed the mask policy should continue—at least temporarily—to give more educators the chance to be vaccinated. The state announced March 3 that educators could join the priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Additionally, district officials said they will soon solidify a partnership with Memorial Hermann that will allow more HISD staff members to be vaccinated. More information on the partnership was not available by press time.

However, trustees disagreed on how long the policy should continue. Trustees Lori Twomey, Brent Engelage and Sitton said they wanted the mask policy to be re-evaluated in April at the next school board meeting. Trustees Martina Lemond Dixon, Nancy Morrison, Keith Lapeze and Robert Scarfo said they wanted the policy to continue through the end of the 2020-21 school year to limit disruptions to students and staff.

The motion that was passed unanimously did not include language with either ending date. However, Twomey made a motion at the end of the meeting to discuss the mandate again at the April school board meeting—leaving room for the district to potentially make amendments to the resolution.

Funding concerns

Another factor contributing to the board's decision to continue requiring masks was a potential effect on state funding. District officials and trustees said they were concerned on-campus attendance would decline if the mask mandate were lifted prior to the end of the school year—a move that would affect the district's average daily attendance funding from the state's hold-harmless guarantee.

The hold-harmless guarantee is being provided as long as on-campus attendance participation rates do not decline or remain at, at least 80% or higher, according to March 4 news release from state leaders. If the district lost roughly 2,200 students from in-person learning, Scarfo said district officials indicated HISD could lose $7 million.

"I'm not trying to make this just financial, but that is really important because we have to keep the district going because we want to educate children," he said.

HISD's decision to indefinitely continue the mask mandate falls behind that of some other local school districts that chose to extend the mask requirement through the end of the school year, including New Caney, Aldine, Crosby, Sheldon, Klein, Cy-Fair and Tomball ISDs. Comparatively, the Magnolia ISD board of trustees voted unanimously March 8 to lift its face covering requirement for students and staff effective April 1.

Prior to the vote, HISD requested feedback from families and staff regarding mask preferences and received survey responses March 4-7. While district officials have not yet released the official survey results, Scarfo said roughly 1,900 of 4,500 staff members who responded to the survey expressed interest in getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than half of all community members surveyed were in favor of extending the mask mandate in some fashion.