At the March 9 school board meeting, the HISD board of trustees chose to indefinitely approve a mask requirement for all staff and students but revisit the requirement at the April 13 meeting. Following the March meeting, HISD officials conducted a contact tracing experiment March 27-April 1 in which all staff and students who tested positive for COVID-19 during that time would disclose the number of students and staff who would be designated a "close contact" with and without masks.
"When we have had real, positive cases on campus, we have pretended that no one was wearing a mask and what would happen under those circumstances to the staffing requirements at the campus? How would the campus be impacted?" HISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said at the April 13 school board meeting.
The district's current close-contact standards—as defined and set by the Texas Education Agency—state that an interaction is not a close contact if both individuals are wearing masks; within 6 feet or less for less than 15 minutes; outside with proper ventilation; separated by dividers; at least two weeks from their final vaccination dose without COVID-19 symptoms; or tested positive for COVID-19 within the last three months, recovered and is not experiencing symptoms.
The effect on the district
Of the 38 cases reported the week of March 27-April 1, two staff members and 74 students were determined to be within close contact of an individual who tested positive for COVID-19. Upon close contact, staff are required to not return to campus for seven to 10 days, but students are allowed to continue attending school in person or switch to remote learning, HISD Chief Communications Officer Jamie Mount said. If a student tests positive for the virus, however, they must switch to remote learning, she said.
However, the district's data showed 145 staff members and 2,339 students would have been in close contact the week of March 27-April 1 if mask policies were not in place—assuming no student or staff was wearing masks but close contact standards were in place, Mount said.
On a campus level, the data showed that the week's 38 active COVID-19 cases would have removed 23 staff members from Kingwood Park High School alone if no one was wearing masks.
Board President Robert Sitton asked district officials how 23 staff members staying home for several weeks after a close contact could affect a campus. Fagen said a loss of 23 teachers would be difficult for a campus to manage.
“Certainly, 23 staff members for 10-14 days at Kingwood Park [High School] would be a significant hardship for that campus, the staff as well as the students," she said. "Putting the load of 23 absent staff members on the rest of the staff would be very difficult—even with guest teachers as a possibility—is just not the same thing, particularly for two weeks."
Meanwhile, vaccinations among HISD staff also began increasing in late March, with more than 1,700 staff members reporting that they were vaccinated or scheduled to be vaccinated as of April 8, HISD reported. However, Mount said the contact tracing experiment was done for only the one week, so data is not available on how close contact numbers could have decreased based on ongoing vaccinations.
Trustee Keith Lapeze said the experiment helped him feel more confident in the board's vote March 9 to continue the mask mandate.
“My fear ... last board meeting was we’d have a disruption without the masks," he said. "This data helps me feel better about the decision the board made about keeping the masks for right now."