Effective immediately, students, faculty, and staff in the Marble Falls Independent School District will not be required to wear masks indoors on campus property. The school board voted unanimously to rescind its temporary, one-month mask requirement during a special meeting Wednesday, Sept. 8.
The decision comes just over one week after the board voted 4-3 to implement a month-long mask mandate, which was temporarily delayed following a public protest and other community comments. At the time of the meeting, the district was reporting about 160 active cases of COVID-19. One campus, Highland Lakes Elementary School in Granite Shoals, closed for the week of Sept. 6-10 because of the high number of cases.
The board met in executive session to discuss the legality surrounding the temporary mask requirement prior to hearing public comments and taking a vote on the issue. About 25 of the attendees shared their opinions and concerns during public comment.
While Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order GA-38 prohibits mask requirements at public schools, a temporary injunction with “statewide applicability for all school districts” made the board’s Aug. 30 decision to implement a mask requirement legal, Superintendent Chris Allen explained.
“That temporary injunction lapsed last week, and that means that today, there is not legal standing for the mask mandate that Marble Falls has in place,” Allen said. “Based on the data, as well as our legal standing, it would be the administrative recommendation that we remove the mask mandate we currently have in place, effective immediately.”
Board President Kevin Naumann, who previously voted in favor of the requirement, said the district will form a “steering committee” to represent various community perspectives for future decisions surrounding COVID-19 safety protocols.
Those attending the meeting were allowed to speak for up to three minutes each before the board voted. Only three people spoke in favor of the mask requirement.
Marble Falls City Councilor Dave Rhodes told the board the decision to put a mask mandate in place was made too quickly. Marble Falls-area doctor Amy Offutt suggested a community study on whether masks are effective or harmful for students.
Parent Kimberly Salmon noted there were fewer children in schools last year because of remote learning options, which reduced the risk of spreading COVID-19. She also spoke out against Abbott’s executive order.
“In his executive order, the governor stressed the importance of personal responsibility, but we don’t with other things such as whether or not you can drive while under the influence because they affect public safety,” Salmon said. “Why is protecting against COVID-19 any different?”
Parent Jake Brydon, who helped organize an Aug. 31 protest against the mask requirement at the district’s administration building, publicly apologized to board members and Allen for mischaracterizing their “bad decision as bad faith” while continuing to express opposition to the requirement.
“I think what we’ve discovered, though, is a line in the sand that a lot of the parents have that you’ve discovered, and I don’t want to take away from that,” Brydon said.
Results of a Sept. 1 survey sent out to parents emphasized the divide within the community. During the meeting, Allen shared that 55 percent of survey respondents said they supported the mask requirement. On another question, 50 percent supported giving parents the option to unconditionally opt out. Fifty-one percent said they were in favor of an optional mask requirement, a third option on the survey.
Dr. Amy van Dorfy, a family physician in Marble Falls who spoke in favor of some type of mask mandate at the Sept. 1 meeting, referenced these numbers during her statements.
“The mask mandate that (the board) decided on last week … was for a month,” van Dorfy said. “It wasn’t ‘harm your child’s health, there’s no exception, you must mask.’ I, too, would disagree with mask shaming, although if my teacher told me to put on a mask, I would. Nonetheless, 55 percent of parents in this community support mandatory masking. That actually is the majority.”
She encouraged the board to look for alternatives for the 55 percent of parents who support masks.
Marble Falls High School senior Anneliese Schmidt also referenced the survey, asking board members why students weren’t given a chance to share their opinions.
“In the high school, we are seen as young adults and we are told that we can make decisions for ourselves,” Schmidt said. “It is frustrating that we are told by the district that we have to wear a mask when I see multiple teachers, administration, and some of the school board not wearing (one). If we are young adults in your eyes and we are allowed to make decisions for ourselves, then I hope you guys allow us to decide whether we wear a mask or not.”
After closing public comments, the board voted unanimously to lift the mask mandate beginning immediately and then adjourned.
A recording of the meeting can be found on the MFISD Facebook page.