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'It's About Doing Right': Why Austin ISD Is Defying The Governor's Mask Order

Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde visits the campus of LBJ Early College High School in October.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde visits the campus of LBJ Early College High School in October.

From Texas Standard:

The Austin Independent School District has joined districts in Dallas and, likely, Houston in defying Gov. Greg Abbott's order banning local mask mandates. All individuals on school campuses will be required to wear masks starting Wednesday.

AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told Texas Standard the district decided to require masks because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Austin Public Health all recommend that school-aged children — who cannot yet be vaccinated against COVID-19 because they are younger than 12 — should wear masks to protect themselves and others.

Cases and hospitalizations are surging in the region. Austin and Travis County are currently at Stage 5, the highest level on APH's COVID-19 risk scale, and there are just two intensive care unit beds left in the Austin area. Health officials are urging people to get vaccinated, stay home and wear masks when going out.

Elizalde said the district's decision was made in consultation with public health officials, other superintendents and AISD attorneys.

"It has never been our intent, certainly not mine, to defy a governor's order," she said. "I took that very seriously into consideration. This was about the context of our current conditions. I cannot just stand by and simply say, 'Well, I can't do mask mandates because the governor's order prohibits me from doing so.'"

The governor has taken a largely hands-off approach to tackling this stage of the pandemic, saying at the end of July, "the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.” Under his executive order, governmental entities — including school districts — can't require anyone to wear a mask. The order says there's a $1,000 fine for entities that violate the measure.

But health officials say masking is a key tool in preventing the spread of disease. Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes says people can be infected by and spread the highly contagious delta variant without even knowing they are sick.

"This is why we’ve asked people to wear masks whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated, which becomes particularly important in our school systems," she said.

Walkes shared a graph with local leaders Tuesday showing mask-wearing at schools would help decrease the number of COVID-19 patients in Austin area ICUs.

The three charts show ICU patients in the Austin area under the status quo (if nothing changes) and under moderate and high compliance with COVID-19 precautions. Compliance includes wearing masks, getting vaccinated, staying home and only going out for essential things.
Austin Public Health
The three charts show ICU patients in the Austin area under the status quo (if nothing changes) and under moderate and high compliance with COVID-19 precautions. Compliance includes wearing masks, getting vaccinated, staying home and only going out for essential things.

In deciding to implement a mask mandate, Elizalde said the district did what science and data led them to do, and that she would "deal with some of the consequences that come from that decision."

"This is not about being right," she said. "It's about doing right."

Elizalde said parents have expressed both support and opposition to a mask mandate, but this is not a decision about what the "majority" wants.

State leaders have not yet contacted AISD about its decision, Elizalde said.

KUT's Marisa Charpentier contributed to this report.

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