El Campo students will wear masks in the fall in order to prevent schools from closing due to one student or teacher contracting COVID-19, district leaders said at a special meeting Monday night.
Even before Governor Greg Abbott required Texans to wear masks in public on July 3, mask requirements were a controversial topic across the U.S. ECISD plans to require students, staff and visitors to wear a face mask, shield or covering while in classrooms, hallways or the cafeteria.
If masks weren’t required by the district, more drastic steps would need to be taken when a student or employee comes in close contact with an individual with COVID-19, according to ECISD Superintendent Bob Callaghan.
“If masks are not required and someone in the classroom was in there for more than 15 minutes and there weren’t face coverings, the entire class would meet the definition of close contact if someone tested positive (for COVID-19),” Callaghan said. “By isolation protocol, they (would all) have to go home.”
The Texas Education Agency’s definition of close contact with someone who has a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 is being exposed, without wearing a mask, directly to “infectious secretions” or being closer than six feet to the infected person for at least 15 minutes. ECISD leaders verified the definition with research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, according to Assistant Superintendent Dolores Trevino.
“We have to make sure that we follow these guidelines, and I want to make sure that we don’t start to think that just because a kid rips off his mask that all of a sudden he has violated close contact,” Callaghan said. “We have not.”
This definition would allow the district to remain open in the case a single student or employee tests positive for COVID-19, if close contact with others does not occur.
Board Secretary Greg Anderson expressed he was concerned that for younger students, like his five-year-old son, it will be difficult to enforce masks be worn at all times.
“I don’t want him to be going to school and being treated only by a (rigid, by the book) definition of close contact,” Anderson said.
Board President James Russell agreed that Myatt Elementary will be a challenge for enforcing mask rules. Callaghan assured the board that this issue has been thoroughly discussed by the elementary school principals.
“If you go up and hug somebody, and they’re wearing a mask, even though (you’re) not, that is not necessarily considered close contact,” Callaghan said. “I think we need to be judicious and understand that not everybody’s going to be isolated.”
ECISD students will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms such as a fever, chills, cough, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. District leaders plan, however, to allow teachers to screen their own classes for pre-K through fifth grade students.
“Students will be in the building with a mask,” Callaghan said. “They will then go to the classrooms where teachers will screen them in private. Not in front of everybody.”
If a child were to have COVID-19 symptoms, they would then be taken to the school nurse for an evaluation. If campus leaders determine the child needs to isolate they will need to be picked up by a guardian and the child’s classmates will be moved to an alternate location while the classroom is disinfected.
District officials plan to space out seating in classrooms and school buses so that individuals not in the same household can social distance. To do this, class sizes will be limited to smaller numbers, and student movement between classes will be limited.
Students will be allowed time outside and in class where they can take a break from wearing their masks, Callaghan said.
“Kids sitting alone doing individual work can have time to take off their mask because they’re social distanced,” he said.
Additional TEA guidance is expected to be released before the start of the school year. This guidance will be taken into account for the district’s plan, according to Callaghan, along with input from the community.
“What we don’t want to do is overreact,” Callaghan said. “We want to treat this virus with respect and understanding that it can have a detrimental impact on individuals who are older and who have medical conditions. We want kids back in school.”