Masks for students and teachers will be mandatory in counties with more than 20 reported COVID-19 cases when public schools resume in-person classes this fall, under new public health guidelines released by Texas state education officials Tuesday.
School districts must offer daily on-campus instruction for all students who want it, but any parent may request that their child be offered virtual instruction from any school district that offers it, under the guidelines issued by the Texas Education Agency.
The final guidance has been modified from a draft that the agency accidentally posted last month that included few safety mandates for school districts, consistent with Gov. Greg Abbott's hands-off approach to the pandemic at the time.
Since then, as cases have risen, Abbott has shut down some businesses and issued an executive order requiring people living in counties with more than 20 active coronavirus cases to wear masks while in buildings open to the public or outdoor public spaces, wherever social distancing is not possible.
"Consistent with the executive order, masks are required in schools for the duration of the executive order," education Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents on a phone call Tuesday. "It's likely the executive order will be modified over time. As it does, our guidance will be modified."
Abbott's order does not apply to children younger than 10 years old. School districts in counties with 20 or fewer cases can mandate that students and staff wear masks but do not have to, Morath said.
Teachers, who may be more susceptible than students to COVID-19, were concerned upon hearing last month that state leaders considered it safe to return to school. Earlier Tuesday, the Texas State Teachers Association put out a statement asking Abbott to "slow down and put safety first" before reopening campuses this fall.
After the final guidelines were announced, the teachers association said they don't go far enough. "Children younger than 10 will still be exempted from wearing masks in schools. Teachers of those children should be able to decide whether they want their students to wear masks," said Clay Robison, spokesperson for TSTA. "Teachers who fear they will compromise their health by returning to campus should have the choice of teaching remotely, and it doesn't look like TEA guidelines will require that."
And the Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement criticizing the TEA for not providing "more explicit guidance" or including educators and parents in the decision-making process.
The guidance released Tuesday requires school employees to "meet the work expectations set by their employers" but does not include many specifics for at-risk teachers who may not feel safe going into schools.
It also requires school districts to post summaries of their COVID-19 safety plans for parents and the public a week before on-campus instruction begins. Districts must require teachers and staff to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms, including taking their temperature, before going to campuses each day.
Staff members must tell their districts if they have been in close contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and stay off campus for 14 days.
The guidelines include recommendations for school districts attempting to stop the spread of the virus. Schools "should attempt" to have hand sanitizer or hand-washing stations at each entrance and are encouraged to supervise students in hand-washing for at least 20 seconds twice a day. And "where feasible without disrupting the educational experience," schools should encourage students to practice social distancing and consider placing student desks 6 feet apart.
For the first three weeks of the school year, school districts can limit students' access to in-person instruction as they adjust to the shift.
"We know that a lot of families are going to be nervous, and if they're nervous, we're going to support them 100%," Morath said. "But if they want an on-campus instructional experience, we want to make sure that we're offering that throughout the school year."
State Rep. Dan Huberty and state Sen. Larry Taylor, both education committee chairs, praised the TEA for giving school districts "freedom and flexibility to operate in the best way for their local communities" and allowing parents to make the final decision on whether their children return to campus.
Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association and the Association of Texas Professional Educators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.