AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, making masks optional starting Monday, March 7.

“As always, please keep in mind that the fluidity of this pandemic may require that we reinstate a masking requirement,” AISD Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde said.

“During this public health crisis, we have always followed the guidance from public health experts. Today, we know that we can provide more localized protocols based on more community-specific data,” she added.

The district said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin’s top doctor, joined the board virtually during the discussion in executive session.

“Our COVID numbers have significantly decreased to a level that today are only measurable to the thousandth, t-h, of a percent. To be exact, .007%, for this past week,” Elizalde said.

Thousands of people weighed in on AISD’s survey on masks in schools. More than 19,000 have participated, with 159,272 responses and more than 3,000 comments.

The survey was released on Friday, Feb. 25 — the same day the CDC loosened its mask guidelines for low-risk counties, like Travis County.

When asked, “If you knew that Austin ISD would continue testing protocols and require students and staff testing positively to quarantine, would you feel more confident about making masks optional if numbers continue to decline?” 48% of respondents said “yes,” 45% said “no,” and 7% were unsure.

An AISD spokesperson sent KXAN the survey results, which you can find here.

The results come as board members hold a special meeting Wednesday night to discuss a “mask-optional” protocol for schools.

39% of survey respondents said masks should be optional now, 31% said they want the mandate to stay for the rest of the school year, 20% want local health officials to make that call, and 10% said they wanted to “wait a few more weeks to ensure cases continue to decline.”

“I just think it’s way too early for us to decide this,” said Gabriel Keller, a junior at Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA). “We’ve seen COVID dips before and infections, followed by very high surges, with new variants and with people getting more complacent with COVID.”

He’s worried about his immunocompromised friends and their loved ones.

“I have a really good friend that visits his grandparents often. His mom visits his grandparents often, and they are very at-risk for COVID,” Keller explained. “They were just in the ER, and it’s concerning for us to see COVID now being decided and see these mask guidelines change.”

“We’ve had two years to learn about this, and they know how to protect themselves,” said Melanie Zoerner, who has three students in the district. “It’s time to move forward and give our kids a little break from the masks. And then if something happens down the road, then you know, we can evaluate that.”

Zoerner said there are plenty of safety protocols and COVID-prevention methods in place.

“They can get vaccinated, they can get boosted, we have great masks that can protect the wearer, they have access to testing. So I would say at this point, it’s time,” she said.

AISD has said it’s working with the City of Austin, Austin Public Health and Travis County ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, “to evaluate how and what to communicate when a mask-optional protocol is implemented.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines for community risk levels, relaxing its guidance on mask-wearing for a majority of the country.

CDC leaders said Feb. 25 community risk levels will now be determined by three metrics: new hospitalizations for COVID-19, current hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and new COVID-19 cases.

That framework will put counties at “low,” “medium” or “high” risk. In both the low and medium levels, masking is not recommended for most people, unless they are high risk, for example, someone with underlying medical conditions.

Travis County falls in the low-risk category under this new guidance.

Some parents still think the move to having masks optional is premature. More than 70% of the survey respondents were parents.

“We have teachers that are high risk,” said Marie, an AISD parent. “We have teachers that are expecting babies and we want to help protect those teachers and the families and the children within AISD. We have done a great job of that so far. I think removing the mask mandate at this point is premature.”