AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Independent School District will require masks at all of its campuses and district offices, starting Wednesday, AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde announced at a special-called board meeting Monday.

Just over a week before children in AISD return to the classroom, the district’s Board of Trustees heard from dozens of parents and staff concerned about COVID-19.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spike, the board held the meeting to discuss COVID-19 safety protocols. The meeting agenda did not list specifics but noted that Austin Public Health officials moved the area to Stage 5 risk-based guidelines last week due to the spread of the delta variant of the virus.

After spending hours in executive session and discussing the matter behind closed doors, Elizalde announced late Monday night that masks would be required for all individuals and visitors on all campuses, offices and all district property. The requirement will go into effect Wednesday.

“It is very difficult to make these decisions and yet not difficult when we think about what some of the consequences can be,” she said.

Hear more from Elizalde on Austin ISD’s COVID-19 protocols at Monday’s Board of Trustees meeting:

The meeting was called just a day after the Houston Independent School District superintendent proposed a mask mandate for all students and staff in its district — despite an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott which explicitly prohibits school districts and other government entities from requiring masks.

The Dallas Independent School District followed, announcing a mask mandate on its campuses in a news conference on Monday.

“Governor Abbott’s order does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students,” a DISD district statement read.

According to a recent survey sent to Austin ISD families, 80% of the more than 27,000 respondents said they planned to send their children to school wearing a mask.

Still, at least 20% responded they had no plans to do so.

Some members of the group AISD Kids First, who originally formed to support a return to in-person schooling, said their position hasn’t changed.

“We expect AISD to provide an inclusive, nurturing, in-person education. We do not feel that forcing children to violate an executive order is inclusive or nurturing. We also feel strongly that AISD should be focused on education and not healthcare. Healthcare should remain the purview of the parent or guardian,” a representative of the group told KXAN.

The district allowed parents to call in and leave a message to be played during the public comment portion of the AISD Board of Trustees special meeting. Around 60 parents, students and staff called in to ask for a vote in favor of a mask mandate. Many parents told the board members they recognize the “political and financial” risk of violating the executive order, but that they would support the board’s decision in spite of any backlash or repercussions from the state.

“Merely hoping that people wear masks is not enough,” one mother told the board over the phone.

Another parent said, “We need AISD to come through for us and trust us to have their back if they do so.”

KXAN spoke with at least five parents, though, who said they called in asking the Board to comply with the Governor’s order. They each explained why they were frustrated their messages were not played.

Under the governor’s executive order, any government entity found to be in violation will be subject to a fine of up to $1,000.

In-Depth: ‘Inextricable‘ link between schools and surrounding communities

A group of researchers from the University of Kentucky took a closer look at how the spread of COVID-19 in schools affected transmission in the surrounding communities in Texas.

One of the studies authors, Aaron Yelowitz, explained that Texas provided a good case study, as one of the first states where large numbers of districts returned to in-person learning and where COVID-19 cases were increasing in Fall 2020.

  • Read the full study here

While in-school transmission remained fairly low, these researchers found strong a link between schools re-opening, parents and other adults increasing their activity and the spread of COVID-19 increasing, as a result. They tracked the movements and patterns of people aged 16 and older across Texas using cell phone data.

“The infections that we find — the fatalities that we find — could be occurring because when schools re-open, parents go and do more outside of the home,” he explained.

Listen to Aaron Yelowitz discuss their findings:

The researchers said their data points to more than 43,000 cases and potentially as many as 800 deaths that could have been avoided had schooling remained remote.

Figure from School Reopenings, Mobility, and COVID-19 spread: Evidence from Texas, a study from researchers from the University of Kentucky
Figure from School Reopenings, Mobility, and COVID-19 spread: Evidence from Texas, a study from researchers from the University of Kentucky

Still, the study recognizes the other costs of postponing in-person learning on children and their families.

“Such health- and productivity-related losses from COVID-19 must be weighed against learning losses for children, as well as other ancillary effects related to child mental health and abuse and these losses could be substantial but will only become clear over time,” the study notes.

Yelowitz said it’s also important to understand that their study only took data from fall 2020 into consideration — before vaccines were available and when masks were largely still required.

He said they had hoped vaccines would be a “game-changer,” but with vaccinations still not approved for children under age 12 and the delta variant proving to be highly transmissible, they worry it’s “realistic” to brace for even more in-school spread this fall.