Why Won’t Klein ISD Encourage Mask Wearing to Minimize Spread of COVID?

As I write this, my 7-month-old daughter is sleeping on me in a baby carrier. She has COVID 19. She has had fever for 4 days, lots of congestion, and a bad cough. My wife and I are both vaccinated. We also both wear masks inside stores and near other people indoors. We are those people. We have no idea where, when, or how our sweet baby got COVID, but most likely from daycare.

This essay is being written to express my deep disappointment in Klein ISD in Houston, Texas. The district has shown no leadership on the issue of mask wearing. Klein ISD is uniquely underwhelming when it comes to efforts to stop the spread of COVID compared to neighboring Houston school districts. For example, while some districts like Houston ISD and Spring ISD have courageously defied Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-38 preventing them from mandating masks and others like Conroe ISD and Cy-Fair ISD have promoted voluntarily wearing masks to stop unnecessary spread, Klein ISD refuses to encourage students or staff to wear masks or even state publicly that wearing masks has public health benefits.

The district’s mask policy can be found on their website under the “Back-to-School Health & Safety Plan,” which states:

“Per Executive Order GA-38, no employee, student, or visitor is required to wear a mask or face covering, but all employees, students, and visitors are allowed to wear a mask or face covering if they choose to do so.”

When I first read this I was shocked that there was no language encouraging mask wearing, summarizing the rationale for wearing masks voluntarily, or stating the public health benefits of doing so. The language about being “allowed” to wear a mask makes it seem like it is unnecessary. It makes it seem like people who support mask wearing are being appeased. Mask wearing is objectively good practice for individuals and groups to minimize the spread of COVID. Shouldn’t the “choice” be focused on those individuals who choose to not wear masks? If anything, the policy should emphasize the risk that individuals are taking if they choose not to wear masks. The expectation should be that people will voluntarily wear masks to protect themselves and those around them, but that due to Executive Order GA-38 individuals “are allowed to not wear a mask or face covering if they choose to do so.” It was clear to me that Klein ISD had limited itself to a false choice between mandating masks or doing absolutely nothing to promote them.

I decided to attend the next school board meeting. Not just because my wife will be teaching high school in the district, but because there are 54,000 students whose health is at stake too. And their families. Again, getting vaccinated may be a personal choice, but the spread of COVID impacts the entire community. Surely, a local government like a school board would promote responsible behavior based on expert medical advice to minimize the spread of a deadly virus. My public comments to the Klein ISD school board and superintendent included the following:

Lord knows we all wanted a more normal school year, but the unfortunate fact is that the Delta variant is here. It is a fact that our kids are more likely to get COVID this fall than last fall because the Delta variant is far more transmissible. It is a fact that more children are in the ICU in Houston right now than at any point during the pandemic. COVID is not over. For our kids, COVID is worse now than ever.

The Governor’s misguided executive order does not prevent Klein ISD from creating and promoting a culture of mask wearing. The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Texas Children’s Hospital all recommend universal mask wearing by students and staff. Opposition to mask wearing is political. Support for mask wearing is based on empirical evidence that it stops the spread of COVID. To not openly promote masks because some have a political objection to them is to allow politics to interfere with sound medical advice.

I urge you to put the safety of Klein ISD students ahead of politics and immediately revise the language in the district’s “Health & Safety Plan” regarding masks, which reads: “individuals are allowed to wear a mask if they choose to do so.” This language is insufficient and I urge you to “strongly recommend and encourage” that all students and staff wear masks. Please lead by example and set expectations for Klein ISD that will promote health and safety this school year. If a campus culture can discourage drug use or bullying, then surely it can discourage the unnecessary spread of a deadly virus.

As I stated in my public comments, Klein ISD does not have to defy Governor Abbott to promote the health and safety of its students and staff. Klein ISD does not have to mandate masks. They can strongly encourage people to wear them voluntarily. They can share with their students and staff the recommendations from the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Texas Children’s Hospital that wearing masks, aside from vaccination, is the most effective way to prevent and reduce the spread of COVID. They can create a school culture that promotes voluntary mask wearing. After explaining to the school board and superintendent that the district had a practical and measured way to promote health and safety without wading into the politics of mask mandates, I felt proud that I had performed a noble civic action to protect the community. None of what I said seemed controversial to me. In fact, it seemed obvious.

The next day, school districts across the state of Texas began declaring their intentions to mandate masks in defiance of Governor Abbott’s executive order. Other districts took the approach that I had suggested at the school board meeting and proactively encouraged and promoted voluntary mask wearing by students and staff. Klein ISD remained silent. Not only did Klein ISD remain silent, but they appeared to silence me. Normally, the school board meetings are recorded and then posted online for the community to watch if they were unable to view it live or attend in-person. The Klein ISD board meeting was Monday, August 9. A week later, as I write this on Monday, August 16, the video containing the public comments I made to the board are still not available for the public to see. I don’t know how long it usually takes the district to upload the school board video, but I feel like they are burying my public testimony.

On Friday, August 13, Klein ISD issued a statement in response to Harris County’s attempt to require face masks in K-12 schools in defiance of Governor Abbott’s executive order, which began:

“As a school district committed to teaching and modeling civic responsibility for our students, Klein ISD will continue to follow the law.”

Wow. They claim they are modeling civic responsibility by following a law that threatens public health and is arguably an abuse of executive power? Again, I don’t necessarily take issue with the district’s refusal to defy Executive Order GA-38, but if it is civic responsibility they want to demonstrate then why not proactively encourage individuals to act for the good of the community by voluntarily doing the things that public health experts recommend to stop the spread of COVID? Klein ISD’s own “Profile of a Leader” states that an ideal student would be:

“Unwaveringly committed to serving the greater good by…thinking “we” not “me.”

Why not publicly communicate to Klein ISD students some expectations for how to serve the greater good? Why not encourage staff to model that behavior for the students, as well? Why not promote the selfless act of voluntary mask wearing to minimize the spread of COVID within Klein ISD schools? Again, this seems like an obvious thing to do.

What I find so offensive about the use of the words “civic responsibility” to characterize their decision to abide by Governor Abbott’s executive order is the fact that the law in question undermines public health and prevents civic leaders from protecting the community. The governor is using his powers during a pandemic not to help protect the public and stop the spread of COVID, but to prevent other elected officials from doing so. It is arguably the case that those defying and challenging Executive Order GA-38 are exhibiting far more civic responsibility than Governor Abbott or Klein ISD. Furthermore, don’t we teach our students Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which states:

“One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

If ever there were a time for school districts to get “political” or engage in “civil disobedience” it is when an out of control executive tries to prevent local government from protecting the public’s health. Children’s lives are at stake.

What troubles me the most, and why I can’t seem to let this issue go, is the fact that Klein ISD finds it so difficult to say that wearing masks is a good thing to do. It is an objective, scientific, medical fact that wearing masks is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID within schools. We now know from data and experience last year that schools can be safer than the larger community if everyone follows the same health and safety protocols, including wearing masks. Encouraging people to wear masks shouldn’t be any more controversial than encouraging them to wash their hands!

So, what is going on with the Klein ISD school board and superintendent? Why won’t they promote mask wearing? Do they not believe that masks are effective at stopping the spread of COVID? Are they afraid of anti-mask parents? If they don’t believe in the benefits of mask wearing, then they are anti-science. If they are too scared of anti-mask parents to promote masks, then they are putting partisan politics and self-interest ahead of the safety of their students. I can’t decide which is worse. Being ignorant or too afraid to do what is right? Maybe it is a combination of both.

I hope that other families don’t have to stay up worrying if their 7-month-old will need to go to the emergency room because they can’t breathe. I hope that students and staff will choose to wear masks and get vaccinated. I understand that vaccine mandates are controversial. I don’t understand why mask mandates are controversial. I will never understand why Klein ISD thought it was controversial to encourage students and staff to wear masks during a pandemic…

Dad, husband, educator, activist, and Texas surfer.