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Austin ISD superintendent says decision to issue mask mandate was not taken lightly

The decision also prompted hundreds of parents to re-enroll their children for in-person classroom instruction.

AUSTIN, Texas — Dr. Stephanie Elizalde felt like she had "a lot of weight on her shoulders" prior to issuing the masking requirement on Monday night.

The Austin ISD superintendent spoke to KVUE on Tuesday, hours after the order was announced for anyone who steps on campus property starting Wednesday, Aug. 11. 

When school starts Tuesday, Aug. 17, students will also be required to wear masks. Dr. Elizalde said a lot went into that decision.

"When you see the science, when you see the data, and then you apply that to your local context," she said. "Austin is my community now, and so when I see and I hear that there are no more ICU beds and I haven't put students into classrooms yet, and I'm going to put students in classrooms with teachers, with staff members, and we know that masking is one of the most effective COVID protocols other than vaccination, and I'm not able to do that, really required me to ask myself: Why are you the superintendent?"

As of 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Dr. Elizalde said approximately 350 parents have re-enrolled children, from kindergarten to the sixth grade, from a virtual learning model back to face-to-face instruction.

"We've also received emails from parents who have indicated they will now re-enroll their children, period. They weren't enrolled at all," she said.

But Dr. Elizalde also pointed out some parents, although a much smaller group, also contacted the district with their plans to un-enroll their children as a result of the mask order. For parents who don't feel masks are necessary, she wants a discussion with them.

"We want to see if there are some nuances or things that we need to understand about their decision, regarding their disagreement with our expectation that everyone wears masks," she said. "I think every single one of those may be a different and unique situation, and I don't think it's appropriate to simply say this is the way we're going to handle all of them. And in fact, I hope that that's what makes Austin ISD unique is that we are individually centered and that we recognize we're all unique. And so we will be working with our staff today and throughout the rest of the week prior to school, starting to create some scenarios and to role-play what communication can sound like. Our goal here is to find a way to unite us, if at all possible. We might disagree and we're going to work towards not being disrespectful and working to try to honor what the intent of our parents may be, should they disagree with our decision."

Dr. Elizalde also said the mask requirement is not permanent, although it will remain at least through Stage 5 of the COVID-19 risk-based guidelines. 

She said the district will re-evaluate and continue to visit with Austin Public Health Medical Director Dr. Desmar Walkes, as the Austin area hopefully moves to Stage 4. 

The rule, announced at a Board of Trustees special meeting on Monday night, goes against Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order banning mask mandates at Texas schools. It follows Dallas ISD's announcement that it will also require masks at its schools.

Dr. Elizalde said she isn't trying to defy the governor; rather, she is trying to save lives, but she is prepared for any possible fallout from her mask order.

"When I compare the consequences of not making masks required and what that might do and how I might contribute to someone's death, I'm willing to take the other consequences that come with not being in compliance with this order," she said. "When I hear someone say, 'But only a few children have died in the U.S. because of COVID,' you know, as a parent myself and you as a parent yourself, what does that mean to us as a parent? Statistics, maybe statistics on a paper, but as a parent, it doesn't matter how many children. If it's my child, how in the world do I have a conversation to try to justify that? I did not take every single precaution that I could because the statistics said the chances were slim? When I weigh those options, I end up feeling like I made the right option."

Superintendent Elizalde said the school board will vote on the mask requirement on Thursday night.

The district's top administrator also addressed trustees and parents at Monday's board meeting.

"I recognize that in a society where interests conflict, there can be no absolute response that will rest with all of our constituents or stakeholders," Elizalde said. "That being said, I am responsible for the safety, health and welfare of each and every one of our students and staff."

Before breaking into two executive sessions, the board listened to an hour of parent testimony pleading for the district to enforce a face mask mandate despite Abbott's executive order preventing school districts from doing so.

After the first executive session, Austin's Medical Director and Health Authority Dr. Walkes presented a slideshow to the board containing data she believes supports the decision to enforce face masks in schools.

On Tuesday, Walkes said a dozen pediatric patients in the Austin area were hospitalized with COVID-19, with four in ICUs and three on ventilators.

RAW: Austin ISD superintendent speaks after mask mandate decision

This comes as hospitalizations and ICU patients in Austin are reaching levels not seen since January. As of early this week, there were 647 COVID-19 patients in Austin-area hospitals, the most since Jan. 22, and 218 patients in ICUs, the most since Jan. 20.

On Tuesday, Abbott's press secretary released the following statement in response to AISD's decision:

“We are all working to protect Texas children and those most vulnerable among us, but violating the Governor’s executive orders—and violating parental rights—is not the way to do it. Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for mask mandates is over; now is the time for personal responsibility. Parents and guardians have the right to decide whether their child will wear a mask or not, just as with any other decision in their child’s life. Governor Abbott has spent his entire time in office fighting for the rights and freedoms of all Texans, and our office continues working with the Office of the Attorney General to do just that. The best defense against this virus is the COVID vaccines, and we continue to strongly encourage all eligible Texans to get vaccinated.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also released a statement on Twitter:

RELATED: 

Coronavirus updates in Central Texas: Austin-area hospitalizations reach levels not seen since January

Austin ISD: What to expect when school starts

AISD has said it is strongly encouraging students, staff and visitors to wear a mask indoors and around others not in their household. It is also offering a virtual learning option for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

The school district said it would update families on virtual learning on Monday.

In his most recent executive order, the governor restated that no government entity, including school districts, can require people to wear masks. “Failure to comply” with the order can result in a fine of up to $1,000.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said going against the State could have other consequences for districts. 

"It does, however, prompt potentially a bigger investigation or more ire from the governor, who might return to the executive order and increase the fine or be more precise about what he'd like to see in terms of mask policies," said Rottinghaus.

Earlier on Monday, Dallas ISD said it will “temporarily” require masks at its schools, defying Abbott's order. The city is also facing an increase in hospitalizations. 

Houston ISD is considering requiring masks as well. The district’s Board of Education is set to vote on the measure this week.

The first day of school for AISD is Tuesday, Aug. 17.

Parent testimony can be watched here:

Post-executive session can be watched here:

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