Texas one of three states nixing mask mandates as school year approaches
In this April 13, 2021, file photo, kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles. California health officials announced new coronavirus rules for public schools on Monday, July 12, 2021. The new rules eliminate physical distancing while making sure no one will miss class time even if they are exposed to someone with the virus. But the state would continue to require all students and staff to wear masks indoors. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Students in Texas public schools are experiencing another year upturned by COVID-19 as the delta and omicron variants spread.

Texas schools appear to be turning a corner with the virus after the highly contagious omicron variant caused a surge in student and staff COVID-19 cases in January. Statewide, cases and hospitalizations have declined. For now, schools are prohibited from requiring masks, though some continue to ignore the governor’s order banning mask mandates. Several districts temporarily closed or altered operations to compensate for staff shortages due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases. In some districts, students who are frustrated by limited COVID-19 protocols held petition drives and walkouts.

Every Friday, the Texas Education Agency and Texas Department of State Health Services release COVID-19 case counts for students and staff, as reported by the state’s school districts.

State data on school cases is incomplete and likely an undercount. TEA suppresses some districts’ case counts to protect student privacy, and not all districts report student and staff cases to the state, despite agency guidance requiring otherwise. The agency also retroactively updates its data from previous weeks as more districts report cases.

Some large districts, such as Houston and Dallas, have not consistently reported new cases to the state since TEA started tracking COVID-19 data on Aug. 2 for this school year. Many districts publish COVID-19 dashboards that show cases, and TEA recommends families check for the latest data there.

Entire districts, including Clarksville ISD in northeast Texas and Hutto ISD in central Texas, closed temporarily in January without reporting cases to the state. These districts don’t necessarily report their closures, either, since they are not required to do so. TEA informally tracks closures based on media and district reports, said Frank Ward, an agency spokesperson.

At the beginning of this school year, districts had fewer options to slow the spread of the virus and keep students and staff safe.

Last year, school districts were permitted to require masks. Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited mask mandates in schools, prompting a federal investigation for possibly violating the rights of students with disabilities. A federal judge overruled the governor’s order, separately finding that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Abbott’s prohibition on mask mandates is back in effect after a federal appellate court temporarily restored the order.

Before the school year began, the state did not fund online options. Instead, school districts either used federal relief dollars or dug deep into their budgets to provide remote programming for families.

But now, some families and districts may find relief, as Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 15, which expands and funds virtual learning through 2023. While advocates for the law say it is a step in the right direction, it excludes students who failed the STAAR test.

In the last school year, almost 40% of students did not pass their math assessment, and nearly a third didn’t pass reading. Those who failed were disproportionately Black and Hispanic.