In less than a week, some Dallas schools will open their doors and begin welcoming students — just in time for what many health experts say could be a resurgence of COVID-19 thanks to newer, more contagious variants.
Some schools in Dallas ISD (specifically, those that are on a School Day Redesign calendar) will begin on Aug. 2, while those on the intersession calendar will start Aug. 9. Most Dallas ISD schools will begin Aug. 16. In Highland Park ISD, school is slated to start on Aug. 18.
On the heels of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that anyone two and older — vaccinated or not — wear a mask, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidance after cases began to surge again, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in areas where cases are surging.
“This was not a decision that was taken lightly,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director. “The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us.”
Among the ways it has, she said, is in the viral load it produces in vaccinated people with breakthrough infections.
“When we examine the rare breakthrough infections and we look at the amount of virus in those people, it is pretty similar to the amount of virus in unvaccinated people,” she said.
The higher the viral load, the easier it is to give it to someone else.
With this as the backdrop, teachers organizations and even some state legislators are beginning to push back on Gov. Greg Abbott’s insistence that school districts cannot mandate masking, and that virtual learning options won’t be funded this year.
The Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, this week called on Abbott to allow school districts to require masks when school resumes.
“Educators are eager to return to the classroom, but the pandemic is still dangerous,” the TSTA statement reads. “With COVID-19 cases increasing again and many people still unvaccinated, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that everyone older than 2 wear a mask when they go back to school. Children younger than 12 have not yet been approved for the COVID vaccine.”
A spokesperson for Abbott, though, reiterated that Abbott would not reconsider his executive order prohibiting governmental entities – including public school districts – from mandating masks in a statement to the Dallas Morning News.
“Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for government mandating of masks is over ― now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze told the newspaper. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.”
Thirty-two state representatives signed on to a letter requesting that Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath fully fund virtual learning and allow districts to enforce mask-wearing in schools, including State Rep. Rafael Anchia.
“The academic year will be starting soon. and we have heard from school officials and parents in our districts that the path we are on is not acceptable to them,” the letter said. “To meet this challenge, schools must be given options that they currently do not have. First among these is the ability to provide virtual Instruction to those students who are at higher risk of contracting COVID.
“Students are young and less likely to be infected, but some are immunocompromised and any of them can carry the virus home to older or sick family members. Families are concerned about matters of life and death: if they feel that pulling their child out of school is the only way to survive, then they will do that.
“The least we can do is provide them an option so they will not have to sacrifice their child’s education to ensure their safety,” the letter continued, adding a plea for allowing mask enforcement because the “swiss cheese” model of protection that included masks, enhanced cleaning, and other measures helped keep students and staff safer last year.
The AAP also said that it felt the benefits of having students learning in-person outweighed the risks at this point, and said it could be done safely with mask-wearing, vaccinations when applicable, proper ventilation, and other safety measures.
“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers — and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” said Dr. Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health. “The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it’s not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health. Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”