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Masks will be optional in Austin ISD starting Monday

A teacher teaches a hybrid class to in-person and remote students from her classroom.
Michael Minasi
Christina Tapia teaches a hybrid class of third-graders at Boone Elementary School in South Austin in 2020.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to fall in Austin, the city's largest school district announced masks will be optional in schools starting next week.

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said the school board met with the head of Austin Public Health and consulted new federal guidelines that say counties with low "community level" numbers don't need to institute "universal indoor masking."

"Our COVID numbers have significantly decreased," she said at a specially called school board meeting Wednesday. "To be exact .007% [of the school community tested positive] this past week."

Austin Public Health lowered its risk-based guidelines to Stage 3 on Tuesday after Travis County was determined to be a "low-impact county" under the new formulafrom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In these counties, universal masking is not considered necessary.

Austin ISD has required masks since students came back to school buildings in fall 2020. The mask mandate is in defiance of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott. The district has said the rule has allowed schools to stay open amid COVID surges and kept infections within school buildings rare.

"Please keep in mind that the fluidity of this pandemic requires that we reinstate a masking requirement," Elizalde said. "Lastly, and more importantly, we are Austin. We respect each other's differences. Let us all support each other, masked or unmasked."

The change will go into effect Monday.

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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