Beginning Sept. 1, students, faculty, and staff in the Marble Falls Independent School District will be required to wear face coverings indoors until Oct. 1, at which point, school board members will reevaluate whether to keep the requirement in place. The board voted 4-3 in favor of the temporary mask requirement during a special meeting Monday, Aug. 30.
“On the trajectory we’re currently going, I’m not sure we’ll get to the end of this week before I have to close another campus,” said MFISD Superintendent Chris Allen. “I will almost certainly have to start closing certain classrooms. I’ve been left with very few tools with which I’m allowed to try to keep the kids in the community safe. No one wants school closures, but I’m running out of options. Not just because we have legitimate safety concerns, but because I don’t have enough staff.”
The board’s decision allows for medical exemptions to the mask requirement. Beginning at noon Tuesday, Aug. 31, those with medical documentation who wish to submit an exemption request can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before the school board voted for the mask requirement, Allen shared data surrounding test-confirmed cases of COVID-19. Between Aug. 18 and Aug. 30, the district has had 140 confirmed cases; 134 of those are active. The largest number of cases in one day — 45 — was reported Aug. 30, the day of the meeting, a number that included students, faculty, and staff.
The majority of cases are on the elementary school campuses with a two-to-one ratio in cases. Allen pointed out that elementary school children are under the age of 12 and do not have access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Active cases per campus are reported online on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. Districtwide attendance was reported at 86.8 percent on Aug. 30, compared to 95.3 percent on the same day in 2020.
Additionally, the district has already seen a two-day closure of Highland Lakes Elementary School as a result of a high number of cases, Allen noted. At the time of the meeting, that campus was reporting 77 percent attendance.
Trustees who voted for the mandate were Kevin Naumann, Rick Edwards, Alex Payson, and Mandy McCary. Those dissenting were Gary Boshears, Larry Berkman, and Kevin Virdell.
“Seems to me like our job is to protect our kids, love every child, and keeping the schools open is probably one of the most important ways we can do that,” said Payson, who voted in favor of the requirement. “I’m not a big fan of mandating and telling people what to do, but I feel like our job is to keep the schools open.”
During the meeting, Boshears expressed concerns about the district “defying the law,” referring to Gov. Greg Abbott’s July 29 Executive Order (GA-38), which prohibits Texas public schools from enforcing mask mandates.
The legitimacy of the order is being challenged by school districts across the state, including Round Rock ISD and Austin ISD, which have chosen to enforce masks requirements. Over 70 districts have chosen to defy the order, a minority among roughly 1,000 total districts in the state, Allen said. District courts have made some rulings, which are inconsistent, on the issue, but the Texas Supreme Court has yet issue a final statewide decision.
Berkman also voiced disagreement with the mandate, pointing out inconsistencies with requiring mask use indoors but not at outdoor school functions, such as sporting events, where people sit close to one another and could easily spread COVID-19.
“You gotta go all the way,” Berkman said. “You can’t ride the fence. The Lord said you can’t ride the fence.”
“Attendance at a football game is not a requirement, but attendance at school is,” Allen responded.
On Aug. 9, the board adopted a health and safety plan that encouraged the district community to wear masks while on school property. During the meeting, board member Edwards voiced his disappointment in some school leadership and community members who have still chosen not to wear masks.
“Either we encourage them or we mandate it, and I’m ready to move to that point because I think it will make a difference,” Edwards said. “I know we have the governor’s orders … but we do have our kids at risk and our families at risk. We can’t be scared. We can be concerned and we can do our best to mitigate what we have control over, and I think we need to have the wisdom to do something sooner than later.”