With nearly 800 students currently in quarantine after escalating Covid-19 cases, a central Texas school district has begun requiring masks this week — the latest to reject Gov. Greg Abbott’s preference for banning mandates.
The Lockhart Independent School District, located south of Austin, has 204 active cases of Covid-19 with the majority being students, schools Superintendent Mark Estrada said in a statement Saturday following a 5-2 vote by the Board of Trustees to enforce wearing masks.
Estrada said the district had to shutter four classes and a student program after 20 percent or more of those students were diagnosed with the coronavirus.
In total, the school district said about 13 percent of its roughly 6,100 student population has been quarantined.
“We expect there will be a need to close more classes in the coming weeks,” Estrada added, “and if any campus should reach 10 percent or more of students campus-wide who are diagnosed with Covid-19, the district may need to begin closing campuses as well, transitioning students to online learning during the temporary campus closure.”
The uncertainty roiling the Lockhart Independent School District highlights the larger volatility school districts in the state and country are facing as students return to classrooms for the fall and officials grapple with the highly contagious delta variant. The United States over the weekend logged 40 million Covid cases since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020 — a grim tally as hospitals in many states are confronted by a fourth wave of the coronavirus and lagging vaccination rates slowly rise.
In Texas, the state’s health agency has recorded a sharp jump in Covid-19 rates, with more than 51,900 positive student cases since it began tracking on Aug. 13 for the 2021-22 school year. The total is up from 18,000 student cases tracked two weeks ago, according to NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.
The Texas Education Agency said last week that about four dozen school districts, representing about 42,000 students, had to stop offering in-person classes since the start of the school year because of Covid-19. In East Texas, more than 20 districts had to close for several days to deep clean classrooms, but a majority were scheduled to reopen Tuesday, NBC Dallas-Fort Worth reported.
The Connally Independent School District based in the suburban Waco area said it would begin requiring masks Tuesday when schools reopen after they were temporarily closed following the deaths of two teachers from Covid-19. One teacher was 41 and the other was 59; both worked at Connally Junior High School, but school officials did not believe there was a correlation.
Abbott, a Republican, has rebuffed calls by Democratic leaders and public health officials to mandate masks even as he tested positive for Covid-19 last month. He is vaccinated.
In a statement last month, the governor’s office reiterated his stance against a return to restrictions, saying Abbott “has been clear that we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates” and that “every Texan has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated.”
Many larger school districts in the state have declined to follow Abbott’s executive order issued in July that bars mandating masks and vaccines. While the order was upheld by the state Supreme Court, schools can continue requiring masks until the litigation is resolved.
The Texas Education Agency previously said public schools were under no obligation to conduct contact tracing, but this month it changed course, saying districts must notify teachers, staff and families if a Covid-19 test at a school comes back positive.