As students across Central Texas return to the classroom, school districts’ protocols surrounding COVID-19 remain largely the same as at the end of last school year — no mask or vaccination requirements, and recommendations for students and staff members to stay home if they’re sick. Few districts will offer remote learning options, though.
In updated guidance released Aug. 1, the Texas Education Agency said the state’s public schools still can’t require students or staffers to wear masks. Schools must excuse students who have or are suspected of having COVID-19 and notify the local health department of any positive test results.
Agency officials said students can return to school five days after they began experiencing symptoms and are fever-free, or five days after they tested positive if they don’t have symptoms.
Austin district spokesperson Nayeli Santoyo Flores said masking will remain optional. The district dropped its requirement in March after previously defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning mask mandates amid concerns about rising case numbers.
Flores also said the district offers COVID-19 testing at Burger Center and Delco Activity Center. Officials will continue to gather data on positive cases and will have air purifiers and plexiglass available to mitigate the spread of the virus, she added.
There won’t be a remote option for students if they test positive, but they can contact the school to discuss makeup work and tutoring options.
“We are in a much better place with vaccinations and home testing widely available, but tasks such as handwashing, staying home when ill, and cough/sneeze hygiene are simple ways to prevent many illnesses,” Flores said.
Travis County is at a medium level of community spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At this level, the CDC says precautions such as social distancing and wearing masks in public indoor spaces are optional for those who are vaccinated. Masking is recommended for people who are elderly or immunocompromised, however.
Jennifer Jones, a parent of three children who attend Mills Elementary School in Southwest Austin, said she’s excited that her kids will be able to go to school in person. She said she doesn’t think masks or testing should be required.
“I feel comfortable with the recent announcements and changes that (the district) made,” she said.
However, some parents and community members said in a letter addressed to interim Superintendent Anthony Mays and the school board that they’d like more prevention strategies depending on the level of community spread, such as access to remote learning, masking and contact tracing.
Other Central Texas districts
Officials from other districts in the region — Round Rock, Del Valle, Lake Travis, Hays and Hutto — also said they won’t offer a remote learning option for those who test positive for COVID-19. Instead, the districts will treat it like an absence before the pandemic for which students may collect assignments from teachers to work on at home. Students in the Georgetown district will be “supported to learn from home if they are able to do so,” according to spokesperson Melinda Brasher.
However, each of those districts continues to encourage students and staffers to stay home if they’re sick and to follow state and federal guidance regarding isolation and quarantine recommendations. District officials also will disinfect buildings and encourage hand-washing.
As far as sick time for employees, Round Rock district spokesperson Maritza Gallaga said officials are asking the school board to extend its COVID-19 leave policy — which gave staffers up to 10 additional paid leave days if they received a positive COVID-19 test — for the 2022-23 school year. Lake Travis and Hays are giving staffers five additional days of leave if they test positive.
“The health and safety of our students and staff is of utmost importance,” said Marco Alvarado, spokesperson for the Lake Travis district. “We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 conditions in our community as needed. Individuals and families are encouraged to stay vigilant of conditions and take appropriate measures to protect themselves and those around them.”
Some districts provide testing as well. Round Rock, in partnership with health care company Curative, offers tests at the Raymond E. Hartfield Performing Arts Center. Tests are available for students and staffers on campuses at Del Valle, and Lake Travis offers tests for staffers. The Bastrop district offers testing at Memorial Stadium and will periodically host free vaccination clinics. There will be one from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Red Rock Elementary.
School districts also say they’re monitoring monkeypox along with local health departments. Although monkeypox has been declared a public health emergency in the United States and in Travis County, very few cases have been detected in children.
More:More: Austin, Travis County leaders declare monkeypox a public health emergency
Oluwaseun Egbelowo, a postdoctoral researcher at the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas, said local districts’ COVID-19 protocols are generally “very good.” However, he highly recommends that all staffers and students get vaccinated.
“We understand that the vaccine works and is available for everyone from 6 months old,” he said.
Egbelowo added that in areas with high levels of community spread, students should wear masks to reduce the spread of the virus. The level is high in Hays County and medium in Travis, Williamson and Bastrop counties.
“We want to leave COVID, but COVID is not ready to leave us yet,” he said. “It’s still around, and we should watch out for one another.”