Home COVID-19 Updates Mask mandate in effect in Bexar public schools during new COVID surge

Mask mandate in effect in Bexar public schools during new COVID surge

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Crestview Elementary School teachers in Live Oak gather for a convocation activity Aug. 9 to kick off a new school year. Following a local judge's ruling, San Antonio Metro Health District is mandating all students, employees and visitors to wear a mask inside Bexar County public school buildings. Courtesy photo/Judson ISD

A civil court judge has issued a temporary restraining order against Texas allowing San Antonio and Bexar County to mandate that masks be worn in public schools during a COVID-19 surge blamed on the delta variant. 

The Aug. 10  ruling by 57th District Court Judge Antonia Arteaga is just the latest action as a number of Texas counties, cities and school districts buck a ban against mask requirements ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott, who said wearing a mask should a personal choice.

Critics argue mask mandates are needed to help curb a rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations sparked by the highly transmissible delta variant. 

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff resumed COVID briefings from City Hall on Aug. 10, reporting more than 1,900 new positive cases, two COVID-related deaths, and a community positivity rate of 21.4% — the highest since last summer when the coronavirus raged nationwide.

Local hospitalizations have reached 1,242, with 314 people in intensive care units, and 193 patients on ventilators. Only 8% of staffed local hospital beds are available. 

Describing the situation as “worsening,” Nirenberg and Wolff said they felt compelled to circumvent the governor’s prohibitions, especially as children return to campuses. 

About 90% of hospitalized local COVID patients are not vaccinated, and children ages 11 and under are still ineligible to receive a COVID vaccine.

“It is skyrocketing and we’re getting into very dangerous territory,” Nirenberg said of the surge during the Aug. 10 briefing. 

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, in an Aug. 10 COVID-19 briefing, addresses a judge’s ruling that allows San Antonio Metro Health District to mandate all students, employees and visitors wear a mask inside Bexar County public school buildings. Courtesy photo/City of San Antonio

San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s new directive applies to all Bexar County public schools from prekindergarten through 12th grade. Local officials said the school directive is based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“The pandemic has shown us the importance of in-person learning, but with the highly contagious delta variant now widespread in San Antonio, schools need every tool at their disposal to stay open safely. Those tools include universal masking,” said Dr. Junda Woo, Metro Health’s medical director.

“We must protect those who are still not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which includes all children under age 12, and the unvaccinated members of their households,” Woo added.

Schools are required to notify their student’s parents or guardians if the child is in close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual on campus or during a school-related event.

Unvaccinated individuals who are found to be in close contact with a COVID-positive person will quarantine for 14 days after their last contact. Pupils, staff, teachers, and visitors will stay off campus and not attend any school-sponsored events during the quarantine period.

As of 3 p.m. Aug. 11, Alamo Heights, San Antonio, North East, Judson and Harlandale independent school districts were promoting full compliance with the new mask mandate.

However, Northside Independent School District, where classes begin Aug. 23, is choosing to stick with the governor’s executive order and encourage students, employees and visitors to wear a mask.

Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District said because nearly all of its schools and other facilities sit in Guadalupe County, it would continue following the governor’s order against mask mandates. This includes its Universal City campuses in Bexar County.

“SCUCISD continues to encourage unvaccinated individuals and others with personal or family health concerns to wear masks when indoors, and six feet of distance cannot be maintained,” Superintendent Clark Ealy stated.

Wolff said many local school systems were pushing for a legal remedy to help protect students and, by extension, campus employees and students’ families.

North East Independent School District officials confirmed this week that an employee who attended a recent convocation ceremony at Legacy of Educational Excellence High School tested positive for COVID.

“I think (school districts) will be very supportive of this (mandate),” Wolff added.

The city has returned to updating its online COVID dashboard, as more officials representing local governments, school systems and health care providers statewide are expressing concern about the increased spread.

According to an Aug. 10 report in the Texas Tribune, “The number of COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals is accelerating faster than at any other point in the pandemic as the contagious delta variant spreads unchecked, primarily among the unvaccinated.”

San Antonio and Bexar County aren’t alone in pushing back against the state’s hold on local public health requirements. 

Hours after Arteaga’s ruling, 116th civil District Court Judge Tonya Parker gave similar relief to authorities in Dallas County, where County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an order for masks to be worn inside public schools, county businesses, day care centers and businesses.

Abbott’s office issued a response to Arteaga’s ruling, saying the governor expects the appellate courts to review and reverse the restraining order, which is good through Aug. 16.

“Governor Abbott’s resolve to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans has not wavered,” said Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Abbott’s office. ”There have been dozens of legal challenges to the governor’s executive orders—all of which have been upheld in the end.”

Abbott has threatened sanctions against local leaders who defy the mandate to keep the wearing of masks voluntary at schools. 

Proponents have said it’s their right to decide whether to send their children to classrooms with a mask on or off.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, in an Aug. 10 COVID-19 briefing, addresses a judge’s ruling that allows San Antonio Metro Health District to mandate all students, employees and visitors wear a mask inside Bexar County public school buildings. Courtesy photo/City of San Antonio

Wolff and Nirenberg countered that argument.

“No one’s rights or freedoms are being infringed by ensuring that school districts and public health authorities can offer the mitigation efforts needed to comply with the CDC guidance to keep our kids safe and alive,” Nirenberg added.

In the meantime, local governmental agencies are working to use incentives to increase the rate of vaccinated residents. Bexar County is starting a program to permit fully vaccinated county workers to collect up to $1,000, depending on the type of health insurance they have with the county.

Metro Health proposed dipping into a $1 million federal COVID mitigation grant the city has to offer $100 gift cards to people get vaccinated at Metro Health vaccination clinics.

For their part, several school districts such as Northside, Judson, Southside and Harlandale are having COVID vaccination clinics for employees and students ages 12 and up, as well as opportunities for students to catch up on other routine vaccines.

A drive-thru back-to-school for City Council District 3, involving COVID vaccines for eligible students and employees, backpacks and school supplies, is set for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 21 at Mission Branch Library, 3134 Roosevelt Ave.

eortiz@localcommunitynews.com

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