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BISD Update Regarding New TEA Health Protocols

March 8, 2021

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released new health protocols following Executive Order GA-34 requiring staff and students to wear face coverings unless the district opts out of the requirement. 

The health protocols still require quarantine for students and staff identified by a Health Authority as “close contacts” of an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19. TEA does not allow districts to opt out of this requirement.    

We immediately began collaborating with the Burleson Public Health Authority to understand the implications of opting out of required face coverings, while still quarantining close contacts. The Health Authority tells us that the number of positive cases and close contact identifications will change drastically if students and staff are not wearing masks. To illustrate, if an individual wearing a mask tests positive for COVID-19 and is within 6 feet of others who are also wearing masks, most often there is no identified close contact, and only the individual with COVID-19 will need to quarantine. Conversely, when unmasked, any individual within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more will have to quarantine.

In schools without face coverings, this would effectively mean that a COVID-19 positive individual could cause at least 4-6 other students in each class to quarantine and switch to virtual instruction. If the unmasked, positive student displays symptoms, like sneezing from believed allergies, the entire class may be identified as close contacts, requiring 20-30 or perhaps more to quarantine.

Those numbers put the ramifications of opting out of the face covering requirement into stark perspective. To date, 918 individuals (both students and staff) have tested positive for COVID-19 this school year. The Health Authority identified 640 close contacts that were involuntarily quarantined: less than one close contact for every positive individual. Of those close contacts, 574 were students. Many individuals were excluded from quarantine solely because both parties wore masks.

Even using the most conservative numbers above, if masks had not been worn all year, involuntary quarantines would have at least quadrupled. Instead of 574 students unable to attend school in person for a period of time, at least 2,200 would have had their educational experience interrupted—perhaps several times. 

Our goal was to provide as close to a traditional school experience as we could for every student. Some things we haven’t been able to do. But when we could, we pushed as far as possible. Face coverings played a part in giving that experience to as many students as possible, by reducing positive cases and close-contact quarantines.

Take one example, if our students hadn’t worn a face covering on the sidelines, entire teams would have been quarantined this year. If our students don’t wear face coverings in the dugouts, baseball and softball seasons may be threatened. The same is true for on-campus learning and every other activity or program. JROTC, band, choir, track, soccer, drama, and on. Many students would have missed so many more opportunities for competitions, performances, and ceremonies just because they were identified as a close contact.

We look to finish this year so unlike last year. About this time last year, the Governor ordered us to close our doors. We never want to do that again. If more teachers had been identified as positive cases or close contacts this year, due to maskless interaction (by either staff OR student), we likely would have been forced to close entire schools. We nearly closed Centennial on multiple occasions because we didn’t have enough staff to operate it—even when masks were worn by everyone. 

As of last week, all of our staff are now eligible for the vaccine. Some staff members have received both doses and are considered fully vaccinated. Others have received only the first dose and have expressed concern about elevated risk from an all-day school environment without face coverings before they have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. 

We want our students and staff to be in our buildings. Safely. We want them to participate in lessons on campus each day. We want them to enjoy end-of-year ceremonies like graduations, elementary promotions, student banquets, parties, proms, signing-day events, and award ceremonies. We want them to participate in extracurricular activities like field days, recitals, concerts, talent shows, games, and track meets. So we ask, which of the two alternatives reduces the risk of students missing out: wearing face coverings, or not? As we have worked with the Health Authority and obtained a clear picture of a consequence apparently not thought through by TEA, we have come to realize that opting out of TEA’s face-covering requirement elevates the risk of students missing out on this Spring’s events. 

Our students missed out on so much last Spring. We don’t want that to happen again due to illness or close-contact quarantine. To preserve the opportunities for our students for the last couple of months of the school year, we will continue as we have all year and not opt out of TEA’s facial covering requirement. 

No decision we make can please everyone. No option we have pleases us. We all hate being in this position. Like you, we are brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, husbands, and wives. Many of us are also parents. None of us like masks, and more importantly, none of us like seeing our students in masks. So much of the reward for an educator is seeing the bright look on children’s faces when they grasp something new. Or watching kids laugh as they play. We ask you to work with us these last couple of months to give our students the experiences we can, right now, under the current rules. 

And let’s hope and plan for a very different fall.