Texas teachers’ unions say Abbott’s mask mandate reversal could have ‘disastrous consequences’

Organizations argue that teachers are even more at risk now

Students at Driggers Elementary School attend a class in-person as they interact with classmates virtually, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in San Antonio. After seeing two academic years thrown off course by the pandemic, school leaders around the country are planning for the possibility of more distance learning next fall at the start of yet another school year. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Governor Greg Abbott announced on Tuesday that the state would be 100% open and that the state-wide mask mandate will be rescinded effective on March 10.

The mandate, in effect for most Texas counties for eight months, was reversed along with most other statewide COVID-19 orders he signed last year.

Now, three of the state’s teachers’ organizations are criticizing the move, saying not only is it too soon and could put the state at risk, but it creates confusion for schools.

“Gov. Abbott needs to quit obeying his political impulses and listen to the health experts, who are warning that it is too soon to let our guard down without risking potentially disastrous consequences. The experts caution us to continue the safety practices that have worked against this disease, including widespread mask use and social distancing,” said Texas State Teacher’s Association President, Ovidia Molina.

“Abbott’s callous new orders throw our public schools, students, and teachers into chaos, because it leaves open the question of whether masks will be required in all schools. TEA guidance currently says: ‘Schools are required to comply with the governor’s executive order regarding the wearing of masks,’” said Texas American Federation of Teachers President Zeph Cap.

Shortly after Abbott’s announcement, a couple of San Antonio-area schools including South San ISD and IDEA Public Schools issued statements saying masks would still be required for their students.

But the teachers’ unions say the mask reversal leaves school safety protocols unclear.

“We call on the TEA commissioner and school districts across the state to continue to enforce best practice recommendations from health experts and the CDC to better ensure the health and safety of their students, teachers and communities,” said Texas Classroom Teachers Association Executive Director Jeri Stone.

**Update** On Wednesday, The Texas Education Agency issued new guidance on masks saying students should continue to wear them but districts have the freedom to make their own policies.

Read the full statements issued Tuesday from the teachers unions below:

Full statement from Texas State Teacher’s Association President, Ovidia Molina:

Like Gov. Abbott, we believe we are making progress against the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are not there yet. Far from it. The COVID numbers have been coming down, but there were still 1,637 new confirmed cases of COVID in Texas yesterday and 59 deaths. More than 5,600 COVID patients were in Texas hospitals, and much is still unknown about the more-infectious variants of the deadly virus that have started striking our state.

Gov. Abbott needs to quit obeying his political impulses and listen to the health experts, who are warning that it is too soon to let our guard down without risking potentially disastrous consequences. The experts caution us to continue the safety practices that have worked against this disease, including widespread mask use and social distancing.

The Texas State Teachers Association urges the governor to keep his mask mandate in place, especially in our public schools, and see that it is enforced. We also repeat our call for the governor to give teachers and other school employees priority for the COVID vaccine.

A third COVID vaccine has won government approval, but so far fewer than seven in 100 Texans have been fully vaccinated against the disease, and very few of them are educators.

Texans want to see all their public schools reopened, but they want to see them reopened safely. That includes continued safety practices, including mask use, and vaccines for educators.

An overwhelming majority of Texas voters (81%), believe teachers should be given priority for vaccines, according to a bipartisan poll commissioned by TSTA and released this week. That strong level of support represents all demographic and partisan groups.

More vaccines are on the way, and voters believe Gov. Abbott must reserve some for educators.

Full statement from Texas American Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo:

Abbott’s callous new orders throw our public schools, students, and teachers into chaos, because it leaves open the question of whether masks will be required in all schools. TEA guidance currently says: “Schools are required to comply with the governor’s executive order regarding the wearing of masks.”

Meanwhile, Abbott’s new order reads: “Public schools may operate as provided by, and under the minimum standard health protocols found in guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency.”

Abbott has shirked his responsibility to stick with medical advice and clarify what needs to happen to keep our schools safe. Every top health official has stressed that even with vaccinations we need to keep using the most simple tools to stop the spread. So what does Abbot do? He rejects the most effective tool we have–masks.

We have been warned by medical experts that uncontrolled viral outbreaks could lead to vaccine-resistant strains. This politically motivated policy decision coupled with the sheer size of Texas could very well send us back to square one in the fight to control COVID-19. We aren’t just jeopardizing Texas, but potentially putting the entire planet at risk.

Full statement from The Texas Classroom Teachers Association:

We know there are those who will welcome the end of the health and safety requirements that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. But we caution that the price paid by those who attend and work in our public schools, and by their families, could be high.

Recent findings by the CDC that noted low transmission rates of COVID-19 in public schools have been touted to encourage in-person learning in Texas schools. But the CDC reports emphasized a fact that has been conveniently overlooked by many in our state: that transmission is low when health and safety protocols are in place and enforced.

“Significant secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection can and does occur in school settings when mitigation strategies are not implemented or are not followed.” (CDC report Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 schools, updated Feb. 12, 2021.)

Our members have reported to us that many districts were already failing to follow and enforce state guidance. It remains to be seen how districts will respond to the governor’s actions, but the complete absence of state guidance will undoubtedly cause more teachers and students to feel unsafe in the classroom.

“In the absence of widespread availability of vaccines, and given the state’s refusal to prioritize school employees for vaccination, the removal of statewide health protocols is premature and will undo the progress that we have been making in getting the virus under control,” said TCTA Executive Director Jeri Stone. “We call on the TEA commissioner and school districts across the state to continue to enforce best practice recommendations from health experts and the CDC to better ensure the health and safety of their students, teachers and communities.”

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