Friendswood ISD will soon enact changes to current protocols and operations that move the district closer to pre-pandemic life—including an end to the face mask mandate and the elimination of a virtual schooling option.

The board of trustees voted unanimously at its May 10 meeting to make face coverings optional starting June 1. Prior to the vote, several parents and community members voiced support for an end to the mandate during the meeting’s public comment portion.

Other major changes include loosening requirements around contact tracing and quarantines to account for rising vaccination rates. Language in the updated protocols indicates close contact status can be affected by prior infection and vaccination status, and it exempts vaccinated individuals from having to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure. There is also no longer language mandating the completion of a daily formal health screening for students and staff, as the district is relying on self-reporting and self-management of symptoms and exposure.

Superintendent Thad Roher has been in contact with leadership at neighboring Santa Fe ISD, where masks were made optional at the end of March, and said the district’s coronavirus case rates have remained “virtually the same” in the absence of a mandate. Katy, Cy-Fair and Magnolia ISDs have also already lifted mask requirements or will lift them in June.

“As few places maintain mask mandates outside, we still are seeing the luxury of low hospitalization rates for kids,” Roher said May 10.

The protocols were revised to keep as many FISD students in classrooms as possible and best serve their social and emotional needs, particularly in light of widespread vaccine access, district leaders said.

More than 75% of staff voted for optional masking in a voluntary survey, and about 80% of respondents said they had chosen to get vaccinated, according to data presented by district leaders. FISD plans to hold a student vaccine clinic event sometime this summer, Roher said. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recently expanded the Pfizer vaccine’s emergency use authorization to include adolescents as young as 12.

In-house data and Centers for Disease Control research both indicate low coronavirus transmission rates in schools, he added. While outbreaks occur in school settings, multiple studies have shown transmission within these settings is typically lower than or similar to levels of community spread, given schools have prevention strategies in place, per a March CDC science brief.

Although FISD recently experienced an uptick in cases that led to the temporary closure of two Bales Intermediate School classrooms, Roher said internal data indicates the positive cases came from contacts at home or otherwise outside of campus.

“It sounds like sensible recommendations to me based on the data that we have,” trustee Ralph Hobratschk said during the meeting.

Taking into account the gradual increase in on-campus learners as well as a higher failure rate for remote learners, the board also unanimously voted May 10 to eliminate FISD’s virtual education option after the 2020-21 school year.

COVID-19 prevention strategies, including frequent cleaning of commonly touched surfaces during the day and coronavirus testing available for staff, will remain in place next school year with the updated protocols. Students and staff are encouraged to continue exercising caution and avoid coming to school while showing any symptoms of illness, district leaders said May 10.

Fewer than 250 students were learning virtually as of mid-March, and the district has focused on bringing underperforming virtual learners back to campus since the fall. Roher and Board President Tony Hopkins expressed optimism at the district’s ability to provide for any students and families who require different schooling options, but agreed the best overall option for FISD seems to be a full return to in-person education.

“We have to do what’s best for the beliefs as a whole,” Roher said, adding plans for school reopening can often cause community tension. “It can sometimes be divisive, but I commend our community. ... Our community has remained together as a whole.”

Hopkins echoed that sentiment, adding he believes FISD students are “in a lot better spot because of what we’ve done this year” in terms of getting students back to in-person classes and extracurriculars.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to adapt for those students that need it.”

Are you a Friendswood ISD parent or community member with thoughts regarding the district’s plans for 2021-22? Community Impact Newspaper would love to hear from you. Your response may be used in our coverage online or in print.