As the Superintendent of Austin, TX, schools I have mandated that our kids must be masked when they start school on Tuesday. Requiring masks is not and never has been about defying the Governor. This is about having local control to respond to the data about our local conditions, which have become dire.
After the July 4th break, we began seeing the numbers of COVID-19 cases climbing in Austin as the Delta Variant took over. Recently, the situation began escalating quickly on a daily basis to the point that recently I was told that on some days we have had only one pediatric ICU bed available in the entire Austin region. That’s why, with around 75,000 children returning to school on Tuesday, I decided to temporarily return to requiring masks despite the governor’s prohibition.
Anyone in public office must balance freedom with safety. And how we do that should be based solely on local data, not statewide politics. We must take into account what the local public health experts and hospital administrators have told us. Based on their advice and the clear data that masks prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools—as well as our experience last school year when we were allowed to mandate masks—requiring masks this school year was absolutely necessary regardless of what the Governor may want.
We have serious political divisions in this country when it comes to masking, but for me this was not a political decision but rather a deeply personal one. What if a child dies on my watch? How do I say to you, “I’m really sorry. We did everything we could except for masking because the governor’s executive order prohibited me from doing so.” What does that do for a parent? How does that bring them comfort or solace?
If we err, we will err on the side of safety. I can live with someone saying that a mask mandate wasn’t necessary. Honestly, I can live with someone telling me, “I told you so.” I cannot live with a tragedy occurring because I was afraid of the possible consequences of defying part of the governor’s order. That is just not something I’m willing to take the chance on. I realize, of course, that the governor’s executive order may mean that we will be fined for requiring masks. I’d rather pay money than risk a child’s life.
But let’s be clear that this is not meant as an act of political resistance or activism. I do not enjoy defying a governor’s order. As educators, we’re rule followers. That’s what we do as classroom teachers. We create expectations of behaviors and academic outcomes. But we are also critical thinkers, and we create critical thinkers. Anyone who knows me, knows that this was not something I wanted to do but it was something I needed to do.
Overwhelmingly the Austin community has supported our decision to require masks at school. Even those who disagree start their emails to me, “It’s clear that you’re in an impossible situation, but…” before expressing their perspective. That gives me hope that we can work through this.
To our students and families who disagree with this, we want to work with you individually. I do not want a one-size-fits-all. This is about our children. Ultimately, they must live with what we decide, and I’m confident we can work parent-by-parent, student-by-student to tailor our solutions rather than impose a blanket edict regardless of how broadly popular that may be with others. I think the Austin community will demonstrate in this moment that we can get through conflicts in a way that respects our different perspectives and teaches us how to balance personal freedoms with responsibility for each other.
Vaccinations are still the best and safest way out of this pandemic, but they are not yet available for those under 12, which is why we also offered virtual K-6 instruction despite not getting state funding to do so. I know some people want to talk about how few deaths from COVID-19 there are for elementary school-aged children and to claim that those that did occur had comorbidities. As a mom, I could not be OK with saying to you that your child’s death was statistically unlikely. When it’s your child, your niece, your nephew, your sister, your brother, the statistics don’t mean a whole lot. And we have it in our power to reduce those statistical chances even further by mandating masking and other measures to help save kids’ lives.
We look forward to welcoming children back into classrooms and are confident we will do so safely. Because of what we learned last year, we are confident that with masking, air purifiers and increased vaccinations among other precautions, we can keep our kids safe while giving them the rich and exciting instruction they deserve. After all, teaching children, and not “defying” the governor, is why we exist in the first place.
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Contributor: Stephanie Elizalde