Since Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools last May, several large districts, including Dallas ISD, have contradicted that order, creating a conflict that has been making its way through the courts for months.
It’s time to end that.
We have broadly been in favor of empowering local school districts to take steps they think necessary to protect students. We didn’t favor Abbott’s statewide mandate forbidding mask rules any more than we would have favored a statewide mandate to require masking.
But as has been the case throughout this pandemic, the situation is changing. Cases of COVID-19 are falling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seven-day average number of cases nationwide has dropped by almost 64% in the past three weeks. In Texas, cases have dropped by 61% in that time. The seven-day average of COVID-related deaths in Texas has fallen 41% since the delta-driven peak of September 2021, and 48% since the pandemic’s highest peak a year ago.
And while infection rates are waning, we’re growing more and more concerned about the staggering amount of pandemic-fueled learning loss in schools, and the threat to mental health for students who have been isolated from human contact behind masks or computer screens for two years.
As early as April 2020, the CDC was reporting a “significant increase in pediatric mental health-related emergency room visits,” according to reporting by The Texas Tribune. A June 2020 study by America’s Promise Alliance revealed that 30% of young people said they were feeling unhappy or depressed more often. Though masks may be a small factor in our continuing isolation, they aren’t helping.
One important factor for Texas schools to keep in mind is the sizable portion of students who are English language learners and the disadvantage masking might well present for learning a language. That’s to say nothing of the importance of nonverbal communication that masks hinder and that are integral to human contact and understanding. Children developing social skills especially need these signals that deepen and enrich our connections.
Masks are effective for preventing the spread of disease, but recent research, including a Feb. 4 report from the CDC, indicates that cloth masks, the most common kind found in schools, are the least effective type. And efficacy seems to vary widely based on other factors like ventilation.
A December 2021 analysis of school mask policies in Dallas County by the Commit Partnership shows that districts with mandatory masking policies reported slightly lower rates of infection in the first part of this school year: 3% vs. 3.8% among students, and 4.3% vs. 5.2% among staff. But when compared across districts, no compelling correlation emerges between mandates and infection rates. Garland ISD, which mandates masks, was second highest among 15 districts at 5.7%. Cedar Hill ISD, which does not mandate masks, had the lowest rate at 1.1%. The rate for Dallas ISD was low, at 2.1%.
On Tuesday, DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told us he had targeted MLK weekend to drop mask requirements in his district, but a wave of new cases changed his mind. His new target is spring break, which starts March 14.
Hinojosa said he’s watching case counts closely as well as other factors like the county health department’s risk level. He said the number of staff infected had dipped into single digits the day before we spoke.
As the COVID-19 situation changes, prevention measures should adapt. That should mean more stringent measures if another wave arises in coming months, but it should also mean relaxing those measures when possible.
On Monday, four states, Oregon, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware, announced that they are ending statewide mask mandates in schools. Here in Texas, fewer and fewer public spaces are requiring masks. It’s time for schools to take this step.