When classes began a couple of weeks ago, before the first and then the second teacher at Connally Junior High School died of covid-19, only a scattering of students wore masks. On Tuesday morning, every face emerging from the line of yellow school buses was covered.
Masks are now mandatory for students and staff in the Connally Independent School District, on the outskirts of Waco. The decision, made late last week, followed the two teacher deaths and a surge of cases in the community.
“As educators, it is our duty to keep our students safe and healthy. We feel instituting a mask mandate is a step towards doing this,” Superintendent Wesley Holt said in a letter to parents.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in May barred Texas school districts and other governmental entities from requiring masks, saying it should be a matter of personal choice. But as this school year began, with the highly contagious delta variant bearing down, several big-city school districts defied him. Then a court put his order on hold.
Now, many smaller, more rural school districts are following their big-city counterparts.
Lacy Lakeview, where Connally schools are located, is hidden just off Interstate 35, outside of Waco. The school district was created to serve students living on the former Connally Air Force Base. Today the area is a mostly middle-class, suburban community, dotted by mobile home parks, where an aging water tower boasts of the schools: “Home of the Cadets — Connally ISD.”
Many here have been inclined to support Abbott. When school opened, masks were optional and perhaps 10 percent of students opted to wear them, said Jill Bottelberghe, an assistant superintendent. But there are signs this is changing.
“I just dropped my kid off and I’m scared to death,” said one mother after leaving her 13-year-old daughter at Connally Junior High on Tuesday. The district closed for two days last week for testing and cleaning of buildings, and now she’s terrified. “I think it’s crazy they’re opening so soon.”
At Dave’s Burger Barn, a popular hangout just off the Connally High School campus, manager Melanie Lloyd said she has seen a “big increase” in the number of students opting to wear masks in the restaurant.
Students, she said, have been hit hard by the deaths of the two Connally social studies teachers — first David “Andy” McCormick, 59, a longtime resident of the community who taught seventh grade, and a few days later, Natalia Chansler, 41, who taught sixth.
“I believe it should have been mandated once we found out people could lose their lives,” said Lloyd, who had covid last year. “I almost lost my life.”
And at Connolly Elementary School, several miles from the junior high, janitor Jimmy Brown said he didn’t give much thought to getting vaccinated until covid overwhelmed the district. Now, he said, “I’m going to get it.”
Last school year, schools almost uniformly required masks for in-person teaching, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is one of the best ways to prevent virus transmission. But last spring and early summer, as caseloads fell, Republican officials in nine states, including Texas, told school districts they could not require masks for the coming year.
Those orders are on hold because of court intervention in three of the nine states — Texas, Florida and Arkansas. Six others still bar mask mandates, a position that’s come under withering attack from the Biden administration as counter to public health. All six states are under investigation by the federal Education Department’s civil rights office for possibly denying students with disabilities, some of whom are at heightened risk for covid, the right to a free and appropriate education.
In Texas, an increasing number of school districts have moved to implement mandates while Abbott’s order is on hold. That includes not just big cities but smaller, less expected districts, said Frank Ward, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency. Ward said rural areas had been “bubbled off” from the virus, without many cases and not much masking. “Now they are being affected in a profound way.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office counts more than 80 school districts that are not in compliance with the governor’s order against mask mandates.
Connally acted after the second teacher died, and as the district’s count of positive cases rose. The district canceled four days of classes, postponed a much-anticipated football game and, for the first time, offered coronavirus testing to any student, parent or other community member who wanted it. More than 16 percent of those tested were positive, many without symptoms.
Then the district received a sobering warning from the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. Last week brought the highest number of new daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths from covid than at any other point in the pandemic, the agency said.
“The most effective way for you to have an immediate impact within your schools is to drastically increase the use of facemasks,” Farley Verner, local health authority, wrote in a memo to schools Friday.
He added that transmission this school year is far more significant than last. At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, he said, 50 cases were reported between the start of school and Sept. 1. This year, the total was 774. A year ago, 8 percent of overall cases in the county were among children under age 17; now it’s 24 percent.
At the same time, vaccination rates in the county of children ages 12 to 17 are “extremely low,” he said.
Surging cases also led McGregor Independent School District, on the other side of Waco, to adopt a mask mandate, said Superintendent James Lenamon. Under a new policy that took effect this week, the requirement will kick in if more than 2 percent of coronavirus tests in the district come back positive. Campuses will close if the rate surpasses 5 percent.
On Tuesday, all four McGregor schools opened with mask mandates.
Lenamon said he was persuaded by the numbers. Over the course of the past school year, he said, there were 158 total coronavirus cases in his district. In the first couple of weeks of school this year, the district has identified 147 cases. That, he said, “was our aha moment that it was time to do something different.”
The community response, he added, has been “very much mixed.”
“I’ve got folks who say it’s about time and we’re behind you,” he said. “Other folks just don’t see a need.”
While the delta surge may have affected McLennan County, it is not changing attitudes among Republican officials, said Portia Bosse, director of public affairs for the Texas State Teachers Association. The legislature considered a bill to allow schools to implement mask requirements but adjourned without acting on it.
“It shook people, but it didn’t shake the right people who have the power to make policy changes,” Bosse said.
In Lacy Lakeview, City Manager Keith Bond estimated that about half the town of 6,700 people wear masks, and half don’t, a ratio he says doesn’t seem to have been affected by the teachers’ deaths.
Bond said he thinks residents have become “numb” to bad news. He pointed to neighboring La Vega Independent School District, where young students are being enticed to mask up by calling them “Safekeepers” and offering them “treasures,” including “a cup of popcorn,” an “hour of time with shoes off in the classroom” and goodies “from the teacher’s treasure bag.”
Bond worries that such tactics could put undue pressure on the unmasked students, noting that some — maybe most of them — are being ordered by their parents to leave their face bare.
Outside the town’s Family Dollar store, Robert Benford Jr., 47, who trains and boards horses for a living, senses a prevailing fear that mandates are just another form of government overreach. But he said the events in the Connally school district, where he graduated, helped motivate him to wear a mask and he believes the mask mandate should return. He also plans to get vaccinated.
“I’m terrified of needles. But I’m going to go ahead and get the shot,” he said. “I didn’t want to be one of those people who wished I did, and didn’t.”