Masks will no longer be required on Austin school district campuses and facilities from Monday.
Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde made the announcement during a specially convened board meeting Wednesday night after discussing with board members the latest guidelines for public health from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last week, the CDC updated its guidelines, enabling detection in communities considered to have low levels of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“We will abide by the CDC’s recommendations from Monday, March 7,” Elizalde said after speaking privately with the board for nearly two hours.
The Austin School District, which serves more than 74,000 students, was the first district in Central Texas to demand masks in August, contrary to Governor Greg Abbott’s orders banning mask mandates, due to concerns about rising cases attributed to the Delta variant and that children under 12 years of age were not eligible for vaccination.
CDC updates mask instructions:More than 70% of Americans can take off their masks indoors under new CDC guidelines on COVID-19 risk
Dozens of districts and public charter school systems across the state later followed suit.
The Austin district reported the lowest rate of COVID-19 cases among local school districts, according to a American statesman analysis last fall. Public health experts attributed the low proliferation rate to the mesh mandate.
The district has also maintained a mask requirement longer than surrounding districts, even as a vaccine for those aged 5-11 was approved for emergency use late last year, and as the omicron wave has subsided in recent weeks. But on Wednesday, Austin’s school district leaders said they wanted to align their policies with the CDC’s latest guidelines.
“As always, keep in mind that the fluidity of this pandemic may require us to reinstate a masking requirement,” Elizalde added.
Updated CDC, Austin Public Health COVID-19 Guidelines
The CDC has categorized each county in the country by “community level” of COVID-19, based on seven-day averages of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and hospital capacity.
The CDC considers Travis County to have a low COVID-19 community level, and local authorities moved the county from step 5, the highest level of risk guidelines, to step 3 guidelines over the past week.
CDC guidelines and health experts say that people can still choose to mask and should consider personal risk factors such as health conditions and access to medical care when deciding whether to wear a mask or not.
It is also recommended for people to be vaccinated and boosted, ensure good indoor ventilation and follow tests and quarantine if they have been exposed.
District leaders said Dr. Desmar Walkes of the Austin Health Authority spoke with the board Wednesday during the executive session.
“During this public health crisis, we have always followed the guidance of public health experts,” Elizalde said. “Today, we know we can deliver more localized protocols based on more community-specific data. As we move into the next phase of the pandemic, we will continue to listen to our public health experts.”
Austin ISD study shows that society is divided on end-mask requirements
Austin District officials began survey community members before the CDC updated its guidelines, amid a drop in COVID-19 cases in Austin and across the state. That online survey is not scheduled to close until Sunday, but a district spokeswoman said district leaders also considered the survey responses.
When asked whether it was time for the school district to drop its mask mandate, 47% of 17,279 respondents who answered Wednesday night answered yes, a further 47% said no and 6% said they were unsure.
The survey also asked if people would be better off “making masks optional if the number continues to fall” if the district implemented measures such as giving each student a “KN95 or similar effective mask”. Out of 17,046 respondents to that question, 53% said no, 35% said yes, 12% said they were unsure.
(In a press release Wednesday night, district leaders said “N95 masks will be available to students and staff on each campus if they want one,” and that they are still required to run frequent COVID vaccine and test sites.)
Another questionnaire question: If the district continued to test protocols and required quarantine students and staff who test positive, would you feel comfortable making masks optional, provided cases continued to decline? 48 percent of 16,997 respondents said yes, 45% said no and 7% were unsure.
When asked what they would like to see before masks are made optional, 39% of 17,706 respondents said “masks should be optional now”, 31% said they would like the mandate to remain in place for the rest of the school year. 20% said they “would like to hear from our local health officials that masks no longer need to be required in schools”, and 10% said they would like to “wait a few more weeks to ensure cases continue” to fall.”
District leaders also asked if there were any situations where masks remain mandatory. Out of 12,821 respondents to that question, 54% said masks should remain mandatory in “rooms that hold large gatherings, such as assemblies”, and 40% said “masks should be optional at all times” and 6% said “other “.
The majority of respondents said they were school parents, and 55% of respondents who identified themselves by race or ethnicity said they were white. Only 18% of respondents said they were Spanish-speaking or Latino. 55 percent of the district’s students were Hispanic in the 2020-2021 school year, and 30 percent were white.
Elizalde on Wednesday urged community members to respect each other’s choices and beliefs.
“Let’s all support each other masked or unmasked,” she said.