With school openings near, parents and teachers say state leaders have stripped them of weapons against COVID-19

Anthony Pea, 15, sits after receiving a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic organized by the Travis County Mobile Vaccine Collaborative at Rodriguez Elementary School on July 28, 2021.
Anthony Pea, 15, sits after receiving a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic organized by the Travis County Mobile Vaccine Collaborative at Rodriguez Elementary School on July 28, 2021.

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Lindsey Contreras feels backed in a corner.

The first day of school is just a couple of weeks away. The mother of two, whose older child attends school in Allen, has been watching COVID-19 cases surge again in Texas, spurred by the emergence of the much more contagious delta variant.

“I am absolutely scared to death,” she said.

Her older son is 11 years old, too young by just a few months to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Now that Gov. Greg Abbott has prohibited schools from requiring masks and online classes will not be offered, she said she’s running out of ways to protect her child.

“I feel like a trapped animal that can't do anything to protect her babies,” Contreras said. “I would really prefer for [the school district] to offer virtual learning again.”

Lakeisha Patterson shares Contreras’ concerns. She teaches third grade in the Deer Park School District. Her students and her own two children are all too young to be vaccinated. Teaching was scary last year, but she’s even more worried now.

“The precautions we put in place at the beginning of last year, things that were to help, to help reassure parents that we're doing everything we possibly can to keep our kids safe — we're not seeing that this year,” she said.

Parents who are concerned by the lack of mask mandates are left with few options this school year. While Texas provided funds for remote learning during the start of the pandemic, a bill that would have funded it for this year died in the Texas Legislature after the House Democrats broke quorum. Another bill that did pass made it impossible for the TEA to use the same emergency powers to fund remote learning this year, according to an agency spokesperson.

Although some school districts, including Austin and Pflugerville ISDs, have announced online options, several others canceled their virtual learning plans for the upcoming school year.

Contreras and Patterson are joined by physicians, health experts, teachers and advocates in pleading with the governor to allow school districts to require masks, one of the most consistent viable tools against the spread of the coronavirus, and for parents to have their kids wear them even if there isn’t a mandate.

This fall’s hoped-for, easier return to school, with lowered spread of COVID-19 and more of the population vaccinated, has disappeared with the emergence of the more-contagious delta variant of the virus, which experts say is fueling the surge and likely spreading rampantly among the unvaccinated.

Many of those unvaccinated are Texas schoolchildren. According to state data, less than a quarter of Texans aged 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated, and no vaccine has yet been approved for students younger than 12, an age group in more than half of the school system’s grade levels.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that the delta variant is one of the most contagious viruses — comparable in that respect to chickenpox and measles — and anywhere from four to nine times more infectious than previous COVID-19 strains. The CDC still believes it is “rare” for vaccinated people to test positive at this point, but have observed cases of it breaking through.

“Let’s face it; if we don’t take action, the more infectious COVID-19 delta variant will spread among students when they gather together in schools,” a Wednesday statement from the Texas Medical Association read. “We urge use of every tool in our toolkit to protect children and their families from COVID-19. Those tools include vaccinating everyone who is eligible and getting all students to wear a mask to prevent spread of disease to others, especially those who cannot get the shot’s defense from the virus.”

This week the CDC released new guidance that all students and staff in schools should wear masks. The American Academy of Pediatrics similarly says everyone over 2 years old should wear one. But Abbott is standing firm on his ban of allowing schools to require masking.

“The time for government mandating of masks is over,” said Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary, in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Tuesday in response to the CDC announcement. “Now is the time for personal responsibility. Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask, or have their children wear masks.”

Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Montana, South Carolina and Tennessee have also prevented local governments and school districts from requiring masks, according to AARP.

Children are much less likely than adults to get very ill or die from COVID-19, according to several experts and studies. However, complications of the disease have killed some children. And experts warn that children can spread the virus to other members of the family.

Dr. Jim Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief and interim pediatrician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, said that children still can face serious consequences from the virus and parents should focus on preventive measures above all else.

“We've certainly seen a real and relatively rapid increase in the number of cases of COVID-19 in children and adolescents, especially in this month of July,” Versalovic said. “More than 80% of our new cases are due to the delta variants, so the rapid spread of the delta variant is not only driving the increase in cases and adults but is now also clearly responsible for the recent increase in cases among children and adolescents.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Texas Children’s has diagnosed over 15,000 children with COVID-19, and 10% of them needed to be hospitalized, he said.

Hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 rapidly accelerated in June and July, and their numbers are now matching peak levels reached last winter, Versalovic said. When classes start, he said, the hospital is concerned that the rate will increase even more.

“We are definitely concerned about insufficient masking in schools and the lack of masking mandates,” he said. “We do know that parents can help us by continuing to talk with their children and to prepare them for the school year — by emphasizing the importance of masking, distancing, sanitizing and the various safety behaviors we learned in 2020.”

The two main tools to combat the virus are the same as then, he said: masks and vaccines. He encourages parents to have their children wear masks in the classroom regardless of whether they’re inoculated against the virus and to vaccinate children 12 or older.

Versalovic also urged parents to get children tested at the very onset of symptoms like fever or congestion.

“I just want to highlight the importance of prevention and timely diagnosis,” he said. “We know that the delta variant is clearly challenging all of us.”

E. Linda Villarreal, a Rio Grande Valley physician and president of the Texas Medical Association, said it’s important for children’s overall health for them to be allowed back to school, to socialize and be educated. But the problem is sending them without all the protections that are scientifically proven, she said, especially masks and vaccinations.

She said the vaccine will help protect eligible children from more serious symptoms, even if there is a rare case of breakthrough from the delta variant.

“Vaccines defend what matters; they protect our children,” she said.

In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research study, researchers reported that Texas school reopenings last year — even with masking mandates and before the emergence of the delta variant — “gradually but substantially accelerated” the spread of COVID-19 in their communities. Researchers said a likely 43,000 additional COVID-19 cases and 800 additional fatalities occurred within the first two months because of reopenings.

Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, said school districts and educators need options to protect their students and staff.

“We believe the governor must rescind the order that he issued last spring, prohibiting school districts from issuing masked mandates while we have this resurgence of COVID,” Robison said. “School districts need some flexibility to do the best that they can to keep the classrooms safe as the kids return to school.”

The organization on Tuesday released a statement urging Abbott to allow individual school districts to require mask use in their facilities if local officials believe masks will help protect the health of their communities.

Robison said not allowing schools to mandate masks, as they did earlier in the pandemic, is a political decision, not one based on public health.

“[Abbott is] pandering to this political base. He’s running for reelection,” he said. “But he needs to exercise his official responsibilities to take care of and do his best to protect the health and safety of the Texas citizens, including schoolchildren and the educators of Texas.”

The inability to require masks puts everyone at risk: students, faculty and even their family members, some of whom may be immunocompromised, he said.

The number of teachers who tested positive for COVID-19 peaked during the week ending Jan. 10 this year at 5,825, according to state data. In the same week, 10,487 students tested positive. Many teachers across the country chose to pursue early retirement or quit their jobs due to the spread of the coronavirus in their communities.

Patterson, the Deer Park teacher, said the prospect of teaching 20 unvaccinated students who may also be maskless causes her anxiety. Although vaccinated herself, she is worried about still contracting it and potentially giving it to her family, including her children too young to be vaccinated.

“I understand wanting to be back, face to face. I want the same thing, but I want to do it safely,” she said. “I want the governor to untie the hands of our local districts so that they can make the best choices for everyone involved, so that they can support the needs of their individual communities.”

COVID-19-related hospitalizations and the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive — statistics that health and state officials, including Abbott, have used to describe how prevalent the virus is in Texas — have both increased to levels not seen since the spring. Several counties have begun recommending that vaccinated residents mask up once more.

By the time school starts, the situation is expected to be even more dire. Trend forecasters at the University of Texas at Austin's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium said Wednesday that without intervention of masking and social distancing, the state could face facility-straining COVID-19 hospitalization rates matching those seen during the height of the pandemic in January.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday that in recent weeks, an “extraordinary amount of viral transmission” and rare instances of transmission through vaccinated people have been observed. The country is still “in a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” she said, and said it’s important to continue vaccination efforts.

According to standardized test results released by the Texas Education Agency, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to undo years of improvement for Texas students in meeting grade requirements for reading and math, with students who did most of their schooling remotely suffering "significant declines" compared to those who attended in person. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Texas’s decision to return to in-person learning last year was critical in preventing further learning loss.

Joanna Fernandez, whose kids attended school in San Antonio, is calling for more options, especially for students who have underlying health conditions and who have special needs, including her own 9-year-old son. But she said that until the situation improves, she’s going to home-school him.

In that regard she said she’s lucky — she can afford to stay home without working a job, and she used to be a special education teacher, so she has the training. Not every family is that privileged, she said. Because online classes are largely not being offered, she said parents are being presented with an impossible choice.

“With Abbott not allowing mask [mandates], you're putting people that are immunocompromised and immunosuppressed at risk,” she said.

If nothing changes, Lindsey Contreras said, she, too, will have to home-school her son — a decision that feels almost impossible since she and her husband both work full time. She can’t afford to lose her income and is concerned about having to juggle her son's education, which she said she isn’t trained to provide, with her other responsibilities.

“I don't know what else to do,” she said. “I have no other choice.”

Disclosure: AARP, Every Texan, Texas Medical Association, Texas State Teachers Association and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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