AUSTIN (KXAN) — In just one week, a group of over 100 Austin ISD parents, students, and teachers formed the advocacy group “Safe Schools for All” — to demand the district do more to stop COVID-19 spread during in-person learning in the new school year.
Group members are railing against what they call Gov. Greg Abbott’s “dangerous” mask ban in public schools and “irresponsible” guidance by the Texas Education Agency. The new school year comes during an unfortunate surge in COVID-19 cases in the Austin-Travis County area, and state and nationwide.
Many Central Texas parents say they’re concerned — as children younger than 12 still aren’t eligible for vaccinations, as the delta variant rips through communities.
“We have locally elected officials for a reason — they understand our community’s values, know the resources available and health risks to our children,” said Lana Hansen, mother of two AISD students under 12. “We are gathered today to ask Austin ISD to take local action to protect our children by putting in place illness screening, social distancing, mask mandate, and additional safety measures.”
On Monday, in direct defiance of the governor’s ban, Dallas Independent School District announced that beginning August 10, all students and staff will be required to wear masks on district property. With a special meeting Austin ISD meeting scheduled for Monday, many have speculated a similar announcement could be in the works.
Included among the Safe Schools for All members to speak was Dr. Jyoti Kapur, a pediatrician and parent to an Austin ISD student. She gave both her personal plea as a parent and as a health care worker. “Masks are the single most effective way of preventing transmission in the unvaccinated,” said Kapur. “Elementary kids cannot get vaccinated, but they can wear masks.”
Kapur spoke on what she’s seen in Autsin area hospitals to give context to the dire situation.
“The hospitals, PICUs, ERs, all are at capacity. We are in the middle of a very severe RSV season, and then we are seeing increased admissions every day from COVID-19,” Kapur said.
Dell Children’s Hospital echoed those concerns Monday, telling KXAN over the past two weeks, it’s treated an average of eight to ten pediatric patients a day with COVID-19 symptoms.
“More and more of those children are coming in symptomatic and sicker than we saw at the beginning and through this pandemic,” added pediatric nurse Ana Drummond in Monday’s call to action.
For parent Mary Helen McNally, the need for immediate action at Austin ISD couldn’t be more urgent. She’s the mother to an immunocompromised child. She explained:
“My family carries a genetic blood disorder that can make COVID-19 extra dangerous. My kid has it. I have it. Mom has it. Sisters have it…. I’ve been looking forward to sending the kids back to school and keeping my job. If the mask mandate doesn’t happen, that might not happen either. All of us are gonna be out of work because we’re going to be forced to choose between our child’s safety and our family’s security.”Mary Helen McNally, Austin ISD parent
Safe Schools for All said it’s even prepared to go head to head with Governor Greg Abbott and the state in court.
Austin ISD parent and group co-founder Mike Siegel, former city attorney, explained that they’re currently weighing all their options to make sure action is done.
“Our first priority is to encourage the Austin school board to do the right thing — which is also a very difficult thing, we acknowledge that,” said Siegel. “But we need them to take a strong stance: pass a mask policy and implement necessary safety measures. And if and when the school board takes this action on our behalf, we will be there to support them — whether that means politically, legally, or financially. We do know there are threats out there — that there’s a governor, attorney general and others who are talking about fines and imposing sanctions… we want our trustees to know they’ll have our support if and when any of these consequences occur.”
Currently, Austin ISD plans to offer a virtual learning option to all students in kindergarten through sixth grade — but students must be approved for the program.
Siegel added that the State of Texas will try to stop masking be enforced and that that would be the time for the U.S. government to intervene.
Mother of three AISD students Anuva Bonzek showed up to the Safe Schools for All press conference Monday with her children, all holding signs promoting a mask mandate.
“They didn’t go to school all last year, and I want them to feel safe in their school. And they they have a voice in that,” Bonzek said.
“When people don’t wear masks, it just makes me nervous about the safety around everyone that’s around them, and you don’t even know if they’re vaccinated or not,” said Bonzek’s oldest daughter, Niva. “I just want to tell everybody to wear their masks and just tell the anti-maskers to wear masks and start helping other people.”