Wearing blue shirts in solidarity, parents and students showed up to a special meeting of the Hays CISD school board on Aug. 12 to share their thoughts on the board’s COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming school year.
After Superintendent Dr. Eric Wright sent out COVID response updates on Aug. 9 and Aug. 11, many parents from the Hays CISD Community Facebook group encouraged others to wear blue shirts and attend the board meeting to express their concerns and frustrations.
The argument was on between those wanting students to wear masks and those who are against, and whether events should open to full capacity.
Of the more than 20 speakers during the public forum, many called for sporting events and other on-campus events to be opened back up to 100% capacity, for the board to not follow Austin ISD and other school district’s decision to require masks and to allow parents the freedom to choose what is best for their children regarding masks and vaccinations.
“The beauty of choice is that having the right to choose allows one to handle COVID the way they feel is right for them,” senior Aspen Lowden said. “That should be the one solution that makes the most people happy.”
But that was only one side of the story.
Alternatively, a handful of speakers expressed their desire for the school board to require masks and continue to limit capacity at events.
Melissa Huckabay, the parent of an elementary school son, said she and other parents are worried about sending their young children to school with other students and staff members who are not masked as the Delta variant spreads.
During Huckabay’s speech, school board president Vanessa Petrea had to ask members of the audience to remain respectful after outbursts were made.
“Throughout the district there are many, many parents like me, even if they weren’t able to be here today, wondering if the district will step up to better protect them,” Huckabay said. “We are facing a public health nightmare. Pediatric ICUs are reporting a worrying increase of children admitted with COVID-19 complications. Without a mask mandate, especially for elementary school students, it’s going to get much worse.
But other parents, including Darryl Jamail, said they are worried about bullying regarding their children’s decision to not wear a mask.
“I’m here to caution the board in using language that could foster bullying or discrimination against students who do not use masks,” Jamail said. “What research has the board done to determine the detrimental physical, emotional and psychological effects of the masks on school-age children, especially our most vulnerable group in elementary school?”
Jamail went on to ask the board to reference what medical professionals they get their information from.
“In the Aug. 9 COVID response update, you ‘strongly recommended masks,’ and in the next sentence, you ‘urged people to wear them at school,’” Jamail said. “What is this guidance based on? If there are studies to support it, please reference them. I also want to say the same thing about endorsing these injections. There’s a much higher risk to our children from the effects of these injections than there is from getting COVID.”
Additionally, students spoke of the difficulties they faced the previous year with both distance learning and masking at school, and that limiting capacity or canceling events this year will make things worse.
“I don’t think adults understand the impact that had on students,” senior Cameron Ferris said. “I watched as my friends went into deep depression. From an insider’s perspective, school last year was silent. No one talked. No laughs. No fun school get-togethers or traditional activities that make the high school experience fulfilling. You preach about mental health, so this is me talking to you and reaching out. By shutting down activities at school, you make our mental health worse.”
Parents also agreed that limiting capacity and canceling events would be detrimental to their children.
“It is time to give parents back the freedom to make their own risk assessment regarding participation in these activities,” Leslea Pickle said. “You wisely have a plan for the most vulnerable. For everyone else, we need to make up our own minds. It’s not fair to deprive the kids of these activities. They’re important parts of being in high school. It is unnecessarily harmful at this point in terms of mental health to keep these limitations in place.”
Former school board member David Wiley spoke in favor of masks, but said that no matter what happens, the school board will inevitably be blamed if things get worse.
“If you think morale was bad last year, wait until you start this year and then have to shut down after a month,” Wiley said. “That’s where this is headed if you look at national trends.”
Danielle Adams, whose daughter was diagnosed with cancer at age five and is now a senior in high school, compared the handling of her daughter’s cancer treatment to how the school board can handle the pandemic.
“When she was going through cancer treatment, her oncologist told me, ‘We are looking for quantity of life, not quality at this point. If we do this treatment, it will give her a little extra time to let the medical community and scientists catch up,’” Adams said. “This is a new disease. We know masks work: for doctors, nurses and dentists. We can mandate masks because it will give the medical community and scientists a little bit longer to come up with better solutions.”
Throughout the public forum, Wright made notes of concerns that he will address. After the forum, school board members were able to ask Wright questions. Wright said that the updated COVID-19 response would be updated and released this week.
Following Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra’s order on Aug. 13 that requires all students, faculty and visitors to wear a mask, Dr. Wright sent out an announcement in response.
“We will continue to watch the legal developments very closely,” Wright wrote. “The court decisions will tell us what we must do. They will not tell us what we should do.”
Wright also encouraged parents to set an example for students, despite the issue of masks being “entrenched in adult politics.”
“We cannot have chaos and blatant defiance,” Wright wrote. “That serves no one — especially our children. We must also respect each other. We are a very diverse family. We are better than division. We can be the example…We are stronger together.”