The small act of protest was the latest chapter in an ongoing debacle over the district’s mask policy, which some parents and two school board members have called overstrict and inconsistent. The district says the policy is not open to interpretation and has been enforced uniformly.
After Governor Greg Abbott lifted his statewide mask mandate, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) stated that school boards had the power to keep or end their own mask rules. Shortly thereafter, districts around the state began unmasking, and school board trustees Danielle Weston and Mary Bone decided after vaccination to stop wearing masks at RRISD’s socially distanced board meetings.
“So that’s when I got to thinking, like, these cases have plummeted. I’ve been vaccinated. I’m not going to wear a mask anymore. I’m a grown adult. The TEA says if you’re socially distanced, which we are in board meetings, you don’t have to wear a mask. And it also said that all school districts have to abide by these protocols unless their local school board takes formal action to do something different,” Weston told The Texan.
After Weston and Bone attended maskless, the board president decided to switch their next meeting from in-person to virtual.
“I pushed back, I said, ‘Please don’t do this.’ I said, ‘Our district has previously announced that the April 15th meeting was going to be the first meeting open in person to the public since March of 2020. A lot of people were looking forward to reengage with their local governments, and it is disingenuous, less than a week before that meeting, to say it’s going to be virtual-only,’” Weston said.
At that meeting, the board voted to keep the health protocol document that administrators and principals had been treating as a mask requirement. However, Weston and Bone say the rule has ambiguous language. For one, the document says students “should” wear a mask, not “must.”
The district argues that the wording is trivial and voting to affirm the document didn’t change the district’s longstanding mask rule.
“Our mask requirement remains in place. Students and staff have been required to wear masks since returning to campus in September,” RRISD Chief of Public Affairs Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said.
In an online statement published the day after the board affirmed the protocols, the district addressed concerns about their wording.
“The District administration is aware that some families have recently interpreted the phrase ‘should wear masks’ as optional. It is not,” the district wrote in an online statement.
“This protocol has been an expectation and requirement for the entire school year, and that requirement has not changed. Any student participating in on-campus learning for the duration of the school year must comply with the mask protocols. Students who do not wish to comply may opt for virtual learning.”
The effect of “should” isn’t the only blurry spot in the document. Bone noted that, in addition to the alleged ambiguity surrounding the word “should,” the health protocols document never describes a standard punishment for enforcing the mask rule.
“I do not recall the school board actually ever taking up the mask issue, and we definitely never said that there was any kind of punishment… They call it ‘expectations,’” Bone said, referring to a separate document the district published.
“That’s kind of one of our issues, is we kind of feel like this was kind of hidden. If you go to the expectations document, it’s the only place that says that masks are required. That is the only thing we can find. It’s not in the — it’s definitely in different language than the protocol, which is what the board voted on.”
The “expectations” document, which is linked in the health protocols document, says that children who refuse to wear masks correctly must be returned home for remote learning. If students forget their masks, the schools give them disposables for the day.
Bone and Weston both claimed the board did not read or understand the protocol document before voting to affirm it as the district’s official policy, leading to inconsistency in enforcement.
“Currently, the board actually — and me personally — was under the impression that there were no penalties, but what we’ve come to learn is that supposedly there are penalties,” Bone said.
“You know, we’ve heard stories — and these are all just stories, right? It’s just what we’re hearing from the community — but we hear, you know, in high schools that some teachers will let the kids remove their masks, other teachers have a problem with a kid taking a sip of water.”
Weston said she and Bone have seen administrative personnel working without masks on district property during meetings and accused RRISD Superintendent Daniel Presley of bending the rule to allow administrators to take their masks off when working alone on school property.
“The school district is attempting to impose and enforce a policy that does not exist, has not been approved by the school board, and they are trying to misrepresent that policy as though the word ‘should’ means ‘must,’ which we all know it does not,” Weston said.
Round Rock’s choice to double down on its mask policy may come with a cost.
Statewide numbers show a potentially historic dip in public school enrollment between this school year and the last. Since enrollment largely determines how much money the state doles out to schools, a significant departure of students like this would normally lower a school’s funding, though the state has kept a “hold harmless” policy in place this year that ignores the statewide drop in attendance and keeps schools’ funding steady. There are some districts that buck this enrollment trend. A notable example is Peaster ISD, a Texas district that never required masks and saw heightened enrollment while the rest of the state dropped. If RRISD’s mask rules continue, some parents say they may pull their kids out, which could result in lower funding for the district once the “hold harmless” policy ends and schools return to getting funds for the students they teach instead of the students they taught at pre-pandemic levels.
“I’m hoping that Round Rock ISD will change their mask policy so we can remain there,” one parent told The Texan. “My kids are very involved, especially my high-schooler, and I’m hoping that they will change their policy so that we can remain there.”
The same parent said her child’s elementary school has only recently loosened a months-old policy that students must stay inside their classrooms throughout the school day. During physical education classes, her son exercised next to his desk indoors, wearing a mask, while the gym and outdoor areas were closed.
According to Weston and Bone, multiple families have reached out to the school board for updates on the mask rules, saying the policy may determine whether or not they stay in RRISD.
“There was actually one on the April 15 call, there was a parent that actually called in that she’d already removed both of her children that were of school age from Round Rock ISD. Because of the masks. One was a pre-K, and one was, I believe, a kindergartener,” Bone said.
Weston said further that parents have been contacting the school board even outside of meetings for guidance on what to expect.
“We as a school board are getting email after email after email from parents saying, ‘Please tell us what you’re going to do next year, because out of courtesy to us, we need time to properly make arrangements, because are children are not going to be returning to a school in which they are required to wear a mask all day long in order to receive a public education,” Weston said.
On the other hand, many other parents and even students are supportive of the strict policies. One student, Jacob Lozano, asked the district to keep enforcing masks though he learns virtually.
“Please for the safety of everyone keep the mask requirement,” he said.
Trustee Tiffanie Harrison said that popular pressure should not affect the district’s health protocols.
“Our community should not be making decisions about safety for other people’s children,” Harrison said at the April 15 meeting.
“We are still in the middle of a global pandemic, and whether or not y’all want to acknowledge it, there have been several threats made tonight, and none of this is productive towards what we actually need to be accomplishing.”
Recently, Katy ISD announced that the district’s mask mandate would end on June 1. The decision followed a lawsuit whose plaintiffs included a parent and school board candidate who was removed from a meeting by police for not wearing a mask.
One RRISD parent whose child was denied entry to school this morning has threatened to sue the district.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.