(EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated with the Texas Supreme Court ruling on mask mandates and comment from the Aug. 16 HPISD board of trustees meeting.)
Highland Park ISD will continue with their original plan to recommend, but not require masks following a Texas Supreme Court ruling that temporarily blocked mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar Counties.
Highland Park ISD trustees, however, discussed the possibility of strengthening the language in their back-to-school plan regarding masking.
Jae Ellis, who serves as secretary of the board and on the district’s pandemic response committee, said the district is still asking for the community’s help in following safety protocols, like masking, to slow the spread of the virus.
“We’re asking for our community to help. Recognizing that we will not require people to wear masks, we are asking people to wear masks,” Ellis said.
Ellis also read from the part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that encourages people to follow protocols like masking in areas where spread of COVID-19 is high.
Trustee Doug Woodward called for stronger language regarding masks.
“I know we cannot mandate. Legally, we are not in that position, but I do feel that the words ‘recommend’ are weak,” Woodward. “I would like to see us take a strong stand that it is strongly recommended and in fact perhaps even expected that we will have people wear masks to help out.”
“This board constantly comes under criticism for always voting unanimously, and I would suggest it might give great confidence in this board for us to conduct a vote on that and see how unanimous we are because I suspect we’re not,” Ellis added. “I think at the end of the day, we all agree that as long as we’re following the law, we ought to do what we think puts our kids in a situation where they’re most safe.”
Board President Tom Sharpe said he believes there is “true difference of opinion” on masking in schools, but acknowledged the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on masking.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal indoor masking for everyone 2 or older in K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.
Dr. Zachary Dreyfuss and other local parents who work in the medical field also spoke during the board meeting to recommend following the recommendation of the CDC and AAP.
“We are seeing a surge in COVID numbers from the delta variant. According to modeling by UT Southwestern, our area has not yet reached the peak number of cases,” Dreyfuss said. “Our hospitals, in particular, our children’s hospitals, are already at ICU capacity. What that means is that if our children were to get sick, not just with COVID, but any of the normal things that children can get sick with…there may not be sufficient medical treatment for them.”
Dreyfuss also noted that there were no physicians on the district’s pandemic response committee. Dallas County Health and Human Services Chief Epidemiologist (and HPISD parent) Dr. Wendy Chung had served on the committee, but Sharpe said she’d informed district officials that she wouldn’t be able to participate on the committee again this year shortly before the committee’s meeting earlier this month.
By the end of Monday’s meeting, the board unanimously agreed to charge Superintendent Dr. Tom Trigg and the committee to add preferably two medical professionals to the committee.
Other parents argued masks shouldn’t be required in schools.
“I don’t want my freedom taken away, or my child’s freedom taken away, and I don’t want my freedom of making a decision on what’s best for my own child taken away,” Laura Williamson said.
Following new Texas Education Agency (TEA) guidance, students who are exposed to the virus won’t be required to quarantine. Highland Park ISD chief of staff and director of communications Jon Dahlander said keeping students home to quarantine after exposure to COVID would count as an excused absence.
For more on the TEA guidance, visit this website.
Students or staff members who test positive can return to campuses 10 days after the onset of symptoms when re-entry requirements are met, according to the district’s back-to-school plan.
Per CDC guidance, close contacts should be referred for testing regardless of vaccination status. Fully vaccinated close contacts don’t have to quarantine at home after exposure if they don’t have symptoms, but should wear a mask in indoor settings for 14 days or until they get a negative test result, according to the CDC guidelines.
Those who aren’t fully vaccinated should quarantine at home for 14 days (but can shorten it for 10 days or seven days if they have no symptoms and receive a negative test), per CDC guidance.)
District officials say they will continue to notify parents and staff members about any exposure to COVID-19 on campus despite guidance from the Texas Education Agency that districts don’t have to conduct contact tracing. The district will also maintain a dashboard updated online daily with numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases by campus.
The district will continue enhanced cleaning protocols and use of MERV-13 air filters, but the use of lockers, and pre-pandemic lunch procedures will resume, per their back-to-school plan. Visitors will also be allowed on HPISD campuses again, but have to follow check-in and identification procedures.
The district also isn’t requiring COVID-19 vaccines for staff or students.
The guidelines are subject to change based on local, regional, and state guidance. For more on Highland Park ISD’s back-to-school plan, click here.