In person and without protection, residents advocate for stricter COVID guidelines in schools



From Texas Tech’s public media:

Update August 20, 2021: The Texas Education Agency has announced that schools must now notify families when children are exposed to COVID-19. Previously, they were not required to notify parents of COVID-19 cases. Additionally, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled to temporarily allow local mask warrants starting Thursday night.

Sarai Brinker is browsing the pages of comments she and a group of community members have gathered over the past few weeks. Brinker is the mother of two children aged 10 and 11. None are old enough to get the shot, and she feels uncomfortable about sending them back to school in person and unprotected.

There has been a lot of confusion around mask warrants across Texas due to the state-county legal tussle over Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s ban on mask requirements. Yet some local officials continue to fight back. However, this is not the case in Lubbock, the same town where Abbott announced the cancellation of the statewide mask warrant in March.

The lack of locally mandated public health guidelines prompted Brinker to act as students returned to class this week. Over the past few weeks, she has been working to collect these signature pages from people asking Lubbock’s largest school district, Lubbock Independent School District, to beef up their language on COVID-19 guidelines.

So far, nearly 600 people have signed the call to action.

“When we have hundreds of kids inside eight hours a day,” Brinker said, “all we want is for our kids to be able to go to school in a safe environment.”

Brinker and the others are not asking for a mask warrant. Instead, they are asking the district for three things: That teachers and school staff model public health guidelines. Provide masks in the classroom for students and staff who may need them. And number one on the list is to change the language from “welcome masks” to “encourage them”.

Different verbiage is loaded for LISD Superintendent Kathy Rollo, who believes the change would place the onus on schools rather than a personal decision.

“So does cheering mean that you put up posters suggesting that you wear masks? ” she asked. “Does that mean we make announcements every day and say, ‘Okay, everyone’s wearing your masks.’ “

She says schools already know how to avoid spreading the virus. And, while she appreciates feedback from the community, she has also received several other messages asking that the school not require masks.

The district’s tough stance stands in stark contrast to the struggle that several counties and school districts have waged against Governor Greg Abbott’s ban on mask warrants.

Even after the Texas Supreme Court temporarily suspended lower court rulings protecting mask warrants in the Dallas and San Antonio areas, ISD Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has refused to budge.

“We will continue with our mask mandate,” he said in response to the Supreme Court ruling. “To ensure the safety of students, parents, families and especially our teachers, who are on the front line.”

Dr Amy Thompson is on the front lines in Lubbock. She is the Executive Director of Covenant Children’s Hospital. Classes started for most of the students at Lubbock this week, and as Thompson saw the capacity of local hospital beds dwindle, she grew increasingly concerned.

“We have had a number of days over the past two weeks where we no longer have pediatric beds in our children’s hospital,” said Thompson.

While it’s still true that children are less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, she explained that there are still cases. But the main driver of hospitalizations in children is another rising virus – respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) – which Thompson says makes the situation even more alarming.

With the double threat, she envisioned her worst-case scenario as a pediatric healthcare provider.

“I never want to have to turn down a child who needs care,” she said. This is a situation that Lubbock care providers are already experiencing in the adult units.

She’s not the only one worried about capacity. Parents too.

Back at Sarai Brinker’s, she erases the textbooks from her dining room table. She was eager to restore the dining room to its original function, but it’s on hold for now. The call to action she submitted to the district was not adopted.

So, for now, maps of the country and the world decorate the teal walls with artwork painted by her children. The dresser is a temporary library, furnished with filing cabinets. Until her children can get vaccinated, this room will remain as it is. A makeshift class.

Less than a week before her 10-year-old daughter began school in person, Brinker and her husband made the difficult decision to remove her from LISD. “I went to Meet the Teacher Night,” she recalls. “I went to his classroom and the teacher was not wearing a mask.” She will be home schooling her daughter until things improve.

His son, meanwhile, about to start high school and approaching his 12th birthday, which makes him eligible for the vaccine, will be returning to school in person. “I’m just praying that he doesn’t get sick during those six weeks,” she said, laughing nervously. She was silent for a moment, reflecting on the situation she had been forced into and muttered, “I am in conflict,” as so many other parents are right now.

Brinker still considers herself lucky. Even with the difficult decision her family had to make a few days before school started, she recognizes that having the ability to teach her child at home is not something all parents have.

While LISD does not intend to adopt the three demands listed in Brinker’s Community Group Call to Action, Superintendent Kathy Rollo said she will continue with cleanup protocols and encourage students and staff to be vaccinated. Students and staff can obtain masks from the school nurse. And they will conduct contact tracing and notify parents of COVID cases at their child’s school – measures now required by the state as of August 19.


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