As the board of trustees met in closed session, a group of PISD and even Alvin ISD parents and students demonstrated in favor of mask mandates outside of the PISD Administration Building at 1928 North Main St., Pearland.
“This is ridiculous,” said Amadea Barsan, a student at Pearland Junior High West. “I don’t want to be scared when I leave the house and go to school. I don’t want to be scared for my life. I don’t want to go to bed thinking about how everybody that is close to me, everybody that I love, everyone who I care about can be taken away in a second.”
The group aimed for PISD and AISD to implement a universal mask mandate from kindergarten to 12th grade and for it to stay in place until the recent COVID-19 surge got under control, said Alice Murphey, a student at Dawson High School. The other goal by the group was for PISD to fund remote learning.
Parents also addressed PISD Superintendent John Kelly’s comments in a video uploaded on the district’s website and YouTube channel on Aug. 12, in which he said PISD does not have the financial or legal resources to take on the mask mandate issue in court. Kelly also said in the video the district has no authority to enforce masks even if they mandated wearing them.
“Have we looked into joining other larger districts to say can we join your lawsuit?” said Tobi Adeyinka, a PISD parent of two kids not eligible to be vaccinated yet because of age. “Have we looked into gathering with other smaller districts? It’s because they don’t want to do anything.”
Once the PISD board of trustees reconvened in open session, the meeting spent over an hour on public comments from concerned parents on both sides of the mask mandate spectrum.
“Emotional reactions tend to lead to the worst possible long-term policy decisions, and that’s why I stand here in opposition of any kind of mask mandate in Pearland ISD,” said Justin Rogers, who spoke during the public comment portion of the PISD regular meeting.
Pearland ISD health guidelines
The board then transitioned into discussing COVID-19 related matters among each other as Kelly provided an update on the district’s health guidelines.
While PISD will not be enforcing masks, every campus nurse in the district will have access to rapid COVID-19 tests for students, if a parent gives consent, said Larry Berger, the assistant superintendent of support service at PISD.
In addition, schools across the district have upgraded their air filters. Berger said cafeterias have been equipped with bipolar ionization devices, which limited data shows are effective in helping remove viruses, including COVID-19, from the air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Kelly said the district will also put up a COVID-19 dashboard that tracks positive cases at PISD, which it did during last school year; limit visitors; and highly encourage masks, along with other guidelines to mitigate risk, which Kelly said is fluid as more information regarding the Delta variant and the state government becomes available.
Board members Rebecca Decker and Toni Carter expressed their COVID-19 concerns on the topic of masks. Carter said she had received 78 emails from parents regarding masks, 10 of which were from those that did not want a mandate and 68 of which were in favor of a mandate.
Board member Crystal Carbone asked Kelly what the possibility of delaying the start of the 2021-22 school year could be. Kelly said a delay does not do anything because there is no indication the cases will go down soon.
Carter said a delay could buy time for the legal situations on mask mandates to play out at the state level, but Kelly said he does not see Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton changing their stance or Abbott's order being overturned at the state judicial level.
Overall, Kelly said much of the uncertainty is being caused by the lack of guidance from the Texas Education Agency. Kelly said during the 2020-21 school year, the TEA provided a clearer example of what districts could and could not do.
“The frustration that many are feeling right now is that the TEA has not weighed in on a number of issues,” Kelly said.
Even if PISD implemented a mask mandate, Kelly said there would be a large percentage of students that would not wear masks regardless and that the district lacks any capability to enforce wearing them.
“I got to be honest: Right now, in the midst of all of this debate, I feel like this face covering issue has become the Berlin Wall of our community," Carbone said.