Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:10 p.m. Aug. 12 to remove the title of one of the public speakers at the event, as the speaker did not disclose her profession during public comment.
Friendswood ISD leaders are remaining flexible with COVID-19 protocols for the 2021-22 school year, but the community will begin classes next week with no guidance in place encouraging the use of face coverings on campus.
The health mitigation protocols, updated Aug. 9, state that per Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, school districts cannot require anyone to wear a mask or face covering. Families and employees are therefore encouraged “to make the best decision for themselves, and we expect all staff, students and visitors to respect the choice of others,” the protocols stated.
“I have a strange feeling we’re going to be revisiting this at some point,” board President Tony Hopkins said during discussion of the updated protocols, which the board voted unanimously to approve. “We don't have normal, we’re not going to have normal.”
The district previously indicated it would revisit protocols every six weeks, but updated guidance states plans and procedures may be modified depending on the number of positive coronavirus cases at a campus or facility.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at being able to adjust if need be,” Superintendent Thad Roher said at the meeting.
Several parents, including those with immunocompromised students as well as a pediatrician, voiced concerns about the use of face coverings during the public comment portion of the board’s Aug. 9 regular meeting. No one who spoke during public comment was opposed to mask wearing.
The decision to not explicitly encourage masking comes as other area ISDs are revisiting their policies: Spring ISD instituted a mask mandate for students and staff beginning Aug. 16, in defiance of Abbott’s executive order, and Houston ISD’s board of trustees will vote on a mandate at its Aug. 12 regular meeting.
Given FISD’s size—projected enrollment is around 6,100 for 2021-22, per district communications—it is not practical for the district to defy state orders, trustee David Montz said at the board’s Aug. 9 meeting. HISD is home to nearly 200,000 students, and SISD’s student body is more than 35,000.
He and Hopkins both said they expect frequent conversations around the topic.
“I think we’re going to see some fluidity [because] this has ramped up,” Montz said of the virus and its recent spread. “We need to just do what our constituents want us to do.”
Jon Tucker, whose daughter is too young for a vaccine and has asthma making her high-risk, asked during public comment for accommodations for the immunocompromised.
“We can do something in the way of online learning, or we can figure something out in the way of having separate classrooms,” he said. “I don’t think there’s too many teeth to pull on how to accommodate kids with asthma. ... I don’t think it’s right to throw them in class with kids that aren’t having immune problems.”
According to data presented by district leaders in May, 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. Taking into account the gradual increase in on-campus learners in 2020-21, as well as a higher failure rate for remote learners, the board also unanimously voted in May to eliminate FISD’s virtual education option.
Fewer than 250 students were learning virtually as of mid-March. District parent Sally Connolly encouraged FISD during public comment to find a way to offer a virtual learning option given current virus trends.
Jacquelyn Powers, district parent and assistant professor in Baylor College of Medicine’s pediatrics department, emphasized that recent Harris County illness surges must be taken into account. The surges are cause for concern because Galveston County does not have a children’s hospital and is therefore served in that capacity by Harris County, she said.
“This week, at Texas Children’s in the ICU, we had 45 to 48 COVID patients per day; most were otherwise healthy,” Powers said Aug. 9.
The center is at capacity and on overflow, unable to accommodate other medical procedures due to the high patient volume, she added.
Powers’ concerns stem from a variety of factors, including the delta variant being twice as contagious, no mask mandates in place, physical distancing not happening on campuses as indicated in the updated protocols and case counts rising “exponentially, which was not the case last August,” Power said.
“I kindly ask that the district’s leadership, including the superintendent ... and you all as school board leaders, please encourage mask wearing and lead by example,” she said. “I trust educators to teach my children, and I as a pediatrician and my pediatric colleagues are asking you all to please trust our opinions to help keep kids healthy.”