Texas attorney general sues Waco-area school districts as cases remain high among children

Covid cases are rising in young people across the world. Photo courtesy of AP Photo.

By Matt Kyle | Staff Writer

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against several Waco-area school districts for defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

Waco, Midway, McGregor and La Vega school districts were included in the lawsuit. Back in May, Abbott issued an executive order banning governmental entities — including school districts —from mandating masks. Many school districts in Texas have defied this order and issued mask mandates, citing the need to keep their students healthy.

The lawsuit comes amid a high number of COVID-19 cases in children and teens in McLennan County, with 41% of new cases on Tuesday being in the 19-and-under demographic. According to Waco’s COVID-19 dashboard, the total number of new cases per seven days is higher in the county than it has ever been during the pandemic.

Kelly Craine, the public information officer for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, said the high caseload can be attributed to children under 12 being unable to get vaccinated and the low vaccination rate in McLennan County for those who are eligible. She said that to stop the spread of COVID-19, everyone eligible to be vaccinated should do so and masks should continue to be worn.

“COVID-19 is a preventable disease, and to stop COVID, you need to be vaccinated,” Craine said. “For that entire population of 12-year-olds and up, we’re only at 47% vaccination. More than half of our population is unvaccinated. That is the reason we’re seeing such spread right now.”

According to Waco’s COVID-19 dashboard, 89% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

Waco ISD spokesperson Josh Wucher said via email that the district only encouraged masks at the start of the year, but as cases rapidly increased, Waco ISD superintendent Dr. Susan Kincannon made the decision to require masks in all district buildings.

Wucher said the response to the mask mandate has been “overwhelmingly positive.” He said that parents and staff have been supportive even after the attorney general’s lawsuit and that no one spoke against the mandate when the school board reaffirmed it last week. Wucher also noted that the number of reported cases has decreased since the mask requirement was put in place.

In addition to requiring masks, Wucher said Waco ISD has modified facilities to allow for distancing, required frequent hand-washing and sanitization, enhanced ventilation and encouraged employees and eligible students to get vaccinated.

Wucher said students also have online access to their assignments and classwork if they must isolate or quarantine.

Midway ISD spokesperson Traci Marlin said the district does not require masks; rather, it strongly recommends them for students and faculty. She said the district has attempted to contact the attorney general’s office several times to be removed from the mandate list.

Marlin said that the district had implemented a “mask directive” at River Valley Intermediate School due to a high number of cases but that the directive was not a mandate. She also said the number of cases at River Valley decreased after the directive.

In addition to encouraging masks, Midway ISD has also required frequent disinfections of high-contact areas and has made hand sanitizers available in classrooms. The district also has a situational matrix for how the district will respond to the current COVID-19 situation, with contingencies to temporarily close schools if cases reach high enough numbers. The district has online options for distance learning and has provided students with iPads to attend class online.

Felicity Jortner, a student at Midway High School, said even though her school strongly suggests masks, very few students actually do wear masks.

“Each of my classes, which have around 15 to 20 students, I’d say I see only two [students] wearing masks on average,” Jortner said.

Jortner also said that her school had more restrictive COVID-19 protocols regarding social distancing last year but that it has relaxed many rules this year. She said her teachers mostly wear masks and try to keep students as distanced as possible, but distancing is difficult to enforce.

Emma McNulty, a Baylor graduate student from Los Angeles and a student teacher at Midway Middle School, also said very few students wear masks in the classroom. She estimated that about a third of her students wear masks, and she expressed concern for the health of students.

“Especially right now with the flu season, I think the students’ health should be a priority,” McNulty said. “We really need to protect the students.”

McNulty also said classroom learning should be prioritized. While students do have online options to attend school while having to isolate or quarantine, she said that learning via Zoom can be detrimental to students and that teachers have expressed concerns of students falling behind due to the difficulties of learning online.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, Midway ISD is currently reporting 107 active cases among students and faculty, while Waco ISD is reporting 50 active cases per its dashboard.