The latest, delta variant-inspired coronavirus surge arrived at a precarious time for Texas. It overwhelmed hospitals just as the new school year got underway, bringing together the largest unvaccinated population: children under 12 who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine.
Urban counties responded to the surge by filing lawsuits challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. As those lawsuits make their way through the courts, confusing — and sometimes conflicting — temporary orders have come down from multiple courts in recent weeks.
That’s left Texas school boards with a decision to make: require masks in schools, keep them optional or do their best to comply with whatever order applies to them on any given day.
Those choices have clear public health consequences: universal masking is one of the best ways to limit the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, especially when the vaccine isn’t an option. But the ongoing legal and political battle has become a flashpoint for school districts across the state, especially in communities where opinions about masks are divided.
In San Antonio’s more suburban and affluent school districts, parents with opposing viewpoints gave their school boards an earful:
“Which are you more afraid of: voters or COVID? Because you should be more afraid of the voters. We are going to organize and we are going to vote you out if you mask our children,” said one parent during a six-hour board meeting in San Antonio’s North East Independent School District.
“It is your job; it is your moral responsibility, your ethical responsibility — sometimes your legal responsibility — to do everything that you possibly can to protect these children,” said another parent during the emergency meeting called by the district to decide whether or not to institute a mask mandate four days after North East’s first day of school.
The controversy over masks also seems to be stirring up a lot of misinformation. Several parents against a mask mandate argued that masks don’t work and can even be harmful to children. Their public comments showed distrust in medical experts and a preference for gathering their own research, even if that research has been discredited by the scientific community.
Barbara Taylor, an associate professor of infectious diseases at UT Health San Antonio, said the science is actually really clear: cloth masks reduce the spread of aerosol and droplets.
“They don’t prevent all of it. No one is saying that, but what we’re talking about is risk mitigation: What lowers the risk?” said Taylor. “(Masking) is something that I have done as a part of my job for the last 20 years. It is something that we do. It is something that was done in the 1918 influenza pandemic.”
Several parents also said that the flu was more dangerous for kids than COVID. They wanted to know why masks should be required now when they were never required before the pandemic.
“Stop being afraid. Stand up for our kids. We already know that the flu kills more kids,” said one mom.
“The facts just don’t bear out that this is very deadly for children. It’s more deadly for them to get the flu; more deadly for them driving to school in the mornings,” said a dad.
Taylor said one major difference is that there is a flu vaccine for children.
“COVID is different from the flu in that even in children COVID is more deadly and delta is more transmissible than the flu,” Taylor said. “There have, thank goodness, not been many deaths in children. But there have been some, and certainly many more children died from COVID last year than died from flu.”
Taylor said Texas hospitals are seeing a lot of co-infections in children right now, either infected with both COVID-19 and the flu or COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
“We usually do not see either RSV or flu in August,” Taylor said. “There are also consequences of COVID infection for children that we should not ignore that are short of death.”
“The numbers for COVID pneumonia and children are not small,” Taylor said. “And there are many things that we don’t understand. (For example, we’ve seen more) heart inflammation among older teens and athletes, then we see among any other age group with COVID.”
San Antonio school districts that started this school year without mask mandates saw a lot more COVID cases than last year — and a lot more in-school transmissions. District leaders pointed to that data as evidence of the need for masks.