Riki Graves’ daughter Juliana had a heart transplant as a newborn. But her life since then hasn’t been without challenges. Graves says her daughter has been hospitalized 20 times for infectious diseases.
Graves hoped to send Juliana to school in person this fall but says she listened to the advice of Juliana’s medical experts and decided not to when her daughter’s district did not choose to go against Gov. Greg Abbott’s prohibition on mask mandates.
She says if she had the ear of the governor, she would tell him he should also have listened to medical experts and encouraged masking in schools.
“I would say you’re putting Texas kids in harm’s way. And it’s your job to keep Texans safe. And by banning mask mandates in schools, you have let Texans down. And families and children in the state of Texas,” Graves said.
Graves’ family joined a federal lawsuit against the mandate ban. It was filed in August by the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas on behalf of a group of immunocompromised students.
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about why Graves says Texas isn’t doing enough to protect kids like Juliana.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about your daughter. What about her condition has you so concerned about sending her back into the classroom without mask policies?
Riki Graves: Well, my daughter Juliana is a heart transplant recipient and she is in first grade. And our school district is not requiring masks. Juliana has had 20 infectious disease hospital stays since she was born. For her to be exposed to another infectious disease is really scary and troubling. So we have decided to keep her home.
That must have been an excruciating process, figuring out what to do. Or were you pretty clear?
Well, I really relied on the advice of her transplant team and her medical doctors. Juliana has not been vaccinated because she’s not in an age group where the vaccine is approved. And so while we were very hopeful that she would be able to go back and I was just waiting for — her school district to make the right decision, which would be to require masks for students and teachers, they did not make the right decision. And on the advice of her transplant team and after talking to my family, we decided that she was — it was not safe to send her to school.
Are you home schooling?
Her district offered her homebound services, which is four hours each week with a teacher. So, currently, we have a teacher come to our house. She does wear a mask, thankfully, and she comes to our house twice a week for two hours and spends time with Juliana. And then Juliana has homework outside of that, which I have to help her with or her dad does. She is repeating first grade this year because she really struggled with virtual school last year. So, thankfully, she’s doing a lot of review work right now. But if she had been in second grade, I think she would have really been struggling. Our teacher does work with her individually, but she’s also supposed to be getting extra special ed services that is not offered through this program.
Tell us a little bit about the decision to be a part of this federal lawsuit. What is the argument that’s being made here?
Well, the argument is that children with disabilities are not being provided a safe environment to attend school in the state of Texas. And while some school districts have made the right decision, many others have not, and they are letting kids go to school in an unsafe environment. So kids with disabilities under the ADA are supposed to be able to have equal access to school and in a safe environment. And they’re not having that. And so when I found out that this lawsuit was happening, I reached out to the team and decided to join as a plaintiff — for them to represent Juliana.
And when will this move forward in court?
The trial date is set for Austin Federal Court on October 6.
Is there anything that the local district could do that would have prevented you from going the legal route? Or is this about something sort of bigger — a matter of principle for you?
It’s both. I’ve been an advocate, a public health advocate for many years, so it’s both. I stand up for Juliana and I advocate for her rights. But the local district could have made a decision to mandate masks. They voted on it more than once. We also really don’t have strong protocols in our district. Teachers are having to take their own vacation days if they get COVID so they’re not incentivized to even test or stay home when they’re sick. So our district could have made the right decisions, but they chose not to. So it’s been very disappointing for the family.
Is it more about the school district or does the buck ultimately stop at the governor’s desk as you see it?
I think if the governor would have made the right decision, which would have been to follow what the Texas Pediatric Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, whatever it was that the public health experts have been saying, which is that children should be wearing masks in school this year, especially with a more contagious variant. If he would have made that decision and he would have just set it for the whole state, it would have just been healthier for everybody, less kids in the hospital, less people sick, and maybe we could have helped stop this pandemic.
If you had the ear of the governor, what would you say?
I would say you’re putting Texas kids in harm’s way and it’s your job to keep Texans safe. And by banning mask mandates in schools, you have let Texans down. And families and children in the state of Texas.