Following the same quick tit-for-tat process that has characterized mask mandate lawsuits for months now, a district court judge blocked RRISD from enforcing a mandate on September 16 only to have his order reversed at the Texas Third Court of Appeals the next day. The rulings are part of the state’s lawsuit against the district for violating Governor Greg Abbott’s prohibition on mask mandates.
With a path cleared by the court, the RRISD school board implemented a mask mandate last night in a 5 to 2 vote after public comment ended at 10 in the evening. Rather than a uniform blanket mandate, the board approved a “matrix,” which will conditionally require masks when local health authorities find transmission to be high. Students may opt out for medical reasons.
A last-minute separate court order also blocked the board from censuring the two members that have opposed mask mandates at the district roughly since vaccines became widely available and who also questioned the background of Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez.
If passed, the censure resolutions would have stricken the names of Trustees Danielle Weston (Place 7) and Mary Bone (Place 2) from high school diplomas and forbidden them from entering district property without approval from the rest of the board. They would also have been referred to as “Censured Trustee Weston” and “Censured Trustee Bone” on the website and all district communication.
The board majority proposed the resolutions as punishment after a chaotic meeting last week postponed the mask mandate vote. The board had limited seating in the meeting room to less than 20 chairs as a COVID-19 safety measure, and a throng of parents outside the door refused to sit in the overflow room to watch a live feed of the meeting.
Bone and Weston, who insisted that the room can comfortably seat hundreds, left the meeting early after unsuccessfully asking the board to allow more seating. The resolutions say their actions “brought unwanted and negative media and public attention to the District.”
The resolutions also cite Weston’s undue inquiries for information as grounds for censure.
“Trustee Weston’s repeated demands, including but not limited to those of September 13 and 16, 2021, that the District provide information on an accelerated or shortened timeframe are failures and/or intentional refusals to comply Texas Education Code Section 11.1512,” the resolution reads.
Weston demanded arrest reports on September 16 to clarify whether board president Amy Weir (Place 5) had ordered the arrests of Jeremy Story and Dustin Clark, two area fathers that had confrontations with RRISD police at last week’s meeting and were later arrested for disorderly conduct. They were released the next day.
Even though a judge had blocked the board from censuring Weston and Bone, Clark made an appearance at last night’s meeting to speak against the censure resolutions and proposed mandate, saying they did not advance student success.
“The full agenda had nothing to do with student outcomes. It had nothing to do with making good in our community,” he said. “Leaders do not divide. Leaders do not suppress.”
Other community members supported the censure but did not always agree on how severe the censures should be. Some called for the two trustees to resign entirely while others called for a lighter reprimand.
“I support censuring and feel it is deserved but do not support the punishments in them,” community member Lisa Ward said. “Please do not include censure punishments that will continue to create conflict and derail hard work.”
After applause and jeers from the crowd delayed or interrupted the first few public testimonies, Weir and Weston eventually suggested a quieter solution.
“If you feel so moved — jazz hands?” Weir said, miming the motion.
A former district board member called the censure resolutions unproductive.
“What I’m seeing right now is very vindictive and hostile,” Charles Chadwell said. “To do what this censure is is just way beyond the spirit of camaraderie.”
For most speakers, the questions of censure and the mask matrix were all the same ball of wax. No testifier spoke against the censure and in favor of the matrix, or vice versa. Many of the speakers that called for censure felt motivated by Weston’s and Bone’s opposition to the mask matrix.
Some parents and students spoke in favor of a mask mandate with stricter, more uniform enforcement. One speaker cited a study by a Cincinnati hospital finding that schools with mask mandates enjoyed lower quarantine and positivity rates than schools without mandates.
“I do highly encourage you to have a more effective and more enforced mask mandate,” said Jacob Lozano, a high school senior who said he fears bringing COVID-19 home to his 8-year-old sister.
Other parents felt the matrix, though not a total mandate, would infringe necessary freedoms and parental rights.
“Freedom is why my family fled Vietnam,” said Kieu Tran, a mother with four children in the district. “Dr. Bone and Captain Weston have been fighting for your rights.”
Uniquely, one citizen asked the board to either issue N95 masks to students and staff or “sell those 13 Yukon [SUVs] out there” to buy an air filter disinfection system for every school. Citing federal guidance and scientific studies, engineer Travis North noted the steep dropoff in filtration efficiency between cloth masks and N95s, arguing that an investment in air disinfection could avoid the mask fight entirely.
Trustees Weir, Amber Feller (Place 3), and Tiffanie Harrison (Place 6) had to stop public commenters on multiple occasions from bringing up allegations against Azaiez.
Weston and Bone issued a press release August 3 to tell the public about a meeting with a woman claiming to be Azaiez’s mistress who said he assaulted her. Story claims he officially brought evidence of the allegation to the Williamson County Sheriff’s office the day after he unsuccessfully tried to enter the room at last week’s meeting.
The district earned its first failing grade in recent years on the state’s last financial accountability rating. Only twelve other districts out of the thousand in the state failed the rating in the same year.
The Texas Education Agency also recently appointed a monitor over the school board.
As for student performance, RRISD appears to be doing well, judging by test scores. Round Rock ISD high schoolers scored above the state average in Algebra I, Biology, U.S. History, and English I in the spring of 2021. The state average scores for those subjects can be found here.
Like schools across Texas, RRISD has shed students since COVID-19 began. According to district enrollment data, RRISD ended the 2019-2020 year with 50,910 kids in the last week of school. It began the 2020-2021 school year with fewer than 49,000 kids and lost about 500 more by the final week of school, ending with an enrollment of 48,237.
The district began this school year with an even lower enrollment of 47,104, but it seems to be trickling back. The most recent weekly report charts total enrollment at 47,227.
COVID-19 Risk to Children
According to the federal government, youths make up 464 of the nation’s 672,000 COVID-19 deaths, or 0.069 percent. According to state data, 79 Texans under the age of 20 have died with COVID-19. They make up 0.13 percent of the state’s total fatality count of 60,357 deaths.
Federal guidance also says the mortality risk to children from COVID-19 is lower than the flu. In fact, fewer children under the age of 15 died in 2020 compared with prior years, even after accounting for COVID-19-related deaths. Provided that other trends continued based on 2018 data, studies show that heart disease, cancer, and accidental drug overdoses killed more people under the age of 24 than COVID-19 in 2020.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon take up a Texas-based case parsing the legal limits of school board member censures.
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