AUSTIN (KXAN) — A local pediatrician is asking other doctors to sign a petition urging Central Texas school districts to require masks when students return to class.

Within a couple of days of posting the petition, it already had hundreds of signatures.

The petition reads in part, “We implore you to please use your offices to be part of the change needed to move our state in the right direction and towards effective public health. We all are looking to you as our elected leaders, to help us keep our children safe and out of the hospitals. Data is conclusive that second to universal vaccination, universal masking is the most effective way to keep this pandemic in control.”

Monday evening, the Austin Independent School District’s Board of Trustees moved to mandate masks for all campuses and district offices, beginning Wednesday.

Austin made the decision, directly violating Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, shortly after Dallas ISD did.

Following that announcement Monday night, AISD says around 350 students who’d signed up for virtual learning switched back to in person. AISD could not immediately provide an answer as to whether others switched from in-person learning to virtual after the announcement.

The petition’s creator, Dr. Jyotika Kapur, who is a pediatrician in the Austin-West Lake area with Schoolhouse Pediatrics, says AISD’s decision is only a start.

“We can’t sit down and take a sigh of relief until all the children are safe, not just the ones in Austin Independent School District,” Dr. Kapur said.

Dr. Kapur and some other children’s doctors wrote a letter to area school districts across Central Texas, then created the petition, getting hundreds of other physicians to sign it.

Dr. Kapur says like many other doctor’s offices in the area, her office is overwhelmed.

“Last year, a lot of our COVID-positive kids were asymptomatic. We saw more positivity in asymptomatic kids,” she said. “This year, it has become like the flu, like as in, they have the symptoms, and we are able to pinpoint and be like, ‘Oh, I bet that person’s COVID is going to be positive.’ And that’s what is happening. We are seeing COVID-positive patients every single day. And they are all sick.”

Dr. Kapur says children from rural areas that aren’t requiring masks in schools pour into children’s hospitals in Austin.

“We have only so many children’s hospitals. Children with severe respiratory distress and respiratory failure, they require very specialized care, and adults and children don’t work the same,” Dr. Kapur explained. “So adult ICUs and adult respiratory therapists and adult ICU doctors cannot take care of pediatric patients and vice versa. And, because children tend to get less sick in general, the pediatric ICU beds are very, very limited.”

Doctors say an unseasonably high number of cases of RSV in children also puts a strain on those PICU beds.

“Every winter, we get all the kids from over the peripheries because of respiratory distress. RSV puts us there every single year,” Dr. Kapur said of PICU bed shortages. “And right now, COVID, is stretching that.”

KXAN reached out to groups in the area against schools mandating masks for comment.

The group Eanes Kids First responded with a statement, saying, “Every parent, student, teacher, staff, and administrator can choose to mask if they want to do so. Covid, strep throat, flu, etc are all in our lives to stay. Personal decisions and freedom are the backbone of our country.”

The group went on to say it applauds Eanes for following Abbott’s executive order. Eanes ISD told KXAN Tuesday while it’s not currently planning to require masks, a Tuesday night board meeting may determine whether that changes.

Dr. Kapur says an argument she sometimes hears against students wearing masks in school is that it causes them anxiety.

“Masks do not cause anxiety. They do not cause social emotional problems,” she countered. “We are causing emotional problems by keeping children away from schools by forcing parents to keep children away from schools to keep them safe. It is causing a huge amount of emotional distress in children.”

Where other school districts stand on mask requirements

KXAN has reached out to other Central Texas school districts asking whether they’ll require mask mandates.

Pflugerville ISD says it will remain in compliance with the governor’s order. However, the district told KXAN in a statement, “We strongly encourage our staff, students and parents to mask when on our facilities. In the event that the Governor and TEA make changes to their guidance, we will definitely discuss it and make the best decision possible at that time for our students, staff and community.”

Round Rock ISD says at this time, it’s strongly recommending masks. RRISD sent out a survey Tuesday afternoon asking parents if they plan to send their students to campus with a mask. The survey closes at midnight on Friday.

Leander ISD said its board and district leadership have been recommending masks since July. The district also announced its expansion of virtual learning Tuesday.

A spokesperson for Lake Travis ISD says at this time, there are no plans to change the masking policy. Masks are optional but strongly encouraged for staff, students and visitors within LTISD.

Taylor ISD responded similarly, saying, “Currently, we encourage all students, staff and parents to wear masks in our schools. There is no mandate at this time. In addition, our schools will practice frequent handwashing. Students and staff are asked to stay home if exhibiting symptoms, and we will notify parents if a positive case occurs in their child’s classroom.”

Eanes ISD tells KXAN as of now, it doesn’t plan on requiring masks. However, there is a board meeting Tuesday night, in which that could be discussed.

Lockhart ISD said in a statement, “The Governor’s order prohibits mask requirements by government entities and school districts. However, the district welcomes and encourages everyone to wear masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, we continue to share information about vaccine opportunities in our community.”

Hutto ISD says its safety plan does not include a mask mandate in school buildings, because the governor’s order doesn’t allow it. The district says staff and students are urged to wear masks, however, especially at the elementary level.

Blanco ISD also said it will comply with the governor’s order regarding face coverings. In a statement, a spokesperson said, “We do not have a leadership meeting scheduled to discuss defying the executive order.”

Wimberley ISD’s spokesperson told KXAN, “Mandating masks is not something our Board has discussed, or has plans to discuss. Wimberley ISD follows all applicable state laws and Executive Orders from the Governor.”