The school district will have masks available on all campuses, as well as testing and vaccine opportunities. The district said as conditions change, its response may change.
The school board passed the motion to make masks optional at a special meeting on Wednesday, March 2, that involved discussions about masking guidance on school campuses.
“We are Austin. We respect each other’s differences,” said Stephanie Elizalde, AISD Superintendent, after the decision. “Let us all support each other masked or unmasked.”
The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new masking measures on February 25. At that time, the CDC put more than 70 percent of the nation’s population in counties where the virus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. People in these areas can stop wearing masks.
According to the CDC’s county checker, Travis County is among those areas where COVID-19 is not posing a high threat to area hospitals.
In the specially called meeting on Wednesday, March 2, AISD discussed the new guidance from the CDC, as well as guidance from Austin Public Health, regarding masking.
Some educators don’t think it’s time for a change.
“It’s really hard to tell when it’s the perfect time, and I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know,” said Annie Dragoo, a musical theater director at Austin High School.
Dragoo recently had a heart transplant.
“It’s really important to me as an immunocompromised teacher for people to keep wearing masks,” Dragoo said.
She added that she is worried about herself and others on campus who are also immunocompromised.
Navigating the ever-changing COVID guidelines hasn’t been easy for teachers.
“It was very stressful, to put it mildly,” said Brandon Batinsila, who is both an AISD parent and a fifth-grade teacher.
Batinsila said he and his kids wear masks for added protection, but he doesn’t believe it should be mandatory.
“I think the pressure is on to remove the mandate. But I think it should be optional for those kids, and I think people should respect either side,” Batinsila said.
On February 25, the district said it had opened a public survey about masks and health protocols. The district had published some of the results thus far here, but responses were still being accepted through March 6.
As of March 2, AISD had received more than 28,000 responses and 39 percent said masks should be optional now.
Now that an official decision has been made, Dragoo said she is worried about returning to school.
“I’m supposed to return to work in April after having had a heart transplant,” she said. “I’m a little nervous to go in there without masks because I’m taking medicines to protect my new heart, but if I get sick, I’ll be back in the hospital.”
Several days after the CDC updated its guidance, Austin Public Health announced that Austin-Travis County had moved to Stage 3 of the area’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines. But when it comes to masks, APH officials were still “strongly” recommending indoor mask use through the end of the “festival season.”
The 2022 South By Southwest festival is scheduled for Friday, March 11, through Sunday, March 20. SXSW is requiring masks at many indoor locations and in conference rooms and exhibitions. The festival is also requiring proof of vaccination or negative testing to pick up and keep credentials.
As of Friday, March 4, Austin-Travis County is now in Stage 2.
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