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Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.
Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.
The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.
“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.
All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.
At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.
The debate over student mask requirements became a legal battle in some parts of the state. In Fort Worth, a group of parents sued Fort Worth ISD over its mask mandate. Fort Worth’s mask mandate was rescinded but created division in the community that led to death threats and doxxing.
A month into the school year, Texas schools had racked up more COVID-19 cases than at any point during the previous school year. The number of delta cases fell in December as the omicron wave appeared, and several districts temporarily closed or altered operations to compensate for staff shortages due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases in January.
But now, the omicron surge is subsiding. Hospitalizations are declining statewide after omicron drove them to near-record labels.
As of Wednesday, there were at least 3,199 hospitalized patients in Texas with confirmed coronavirus infections — down from Jan. 20, when Texas hospitals reported 13,371 patients with COVID-19. This fell short of the of the record 14,218 hospitalizations the state saw on Jan. 11, 2021.
Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.
The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”
“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.
In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.
Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.
Back in Houston, Texas Children’s Hospital is reporting an average of less than 20 children testing positive for COVID-19 — compared with January, when there were as many as 80 children testing positive, said James Versalovic, the hospital’s pathologist-in-chief.
“It is reasonable to step back from the mandates,” Versalovic said.
But that doesn’t mean people should not be careful. COVID-19 is a fluid situation, and there should continue to be a great emphasis on vaccination, he said.
As seen before, the pandemic has had periods of lull before hitting a surge. Dallas ISD’s Hinojosa said the district could bring the mask mandate back if another omicron situation were to occur.
“Right now, I'm not worried about spring break, but if I have to be when I come back, we'll make that decision at that time,” Hinojosa said.
Disclosure: Texas Children’s Hospital has been a financial supporter 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.
Correction, March 4, 2022: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Harris County's judge. She is Lina Hidalgo, not Linda Hidalgo.