AUSTIN, Texas -- The first day of school has always been exhilarating for Tom Leonard, superintendent of Eanes Independent School District in Austin. It's a day filled with "magical moments," where children reunite with friends and teachers connect with students.
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"Pandemic or no pandemic - it's the first day of school, and I'm excited," Leonard said on Wednesday afternoon, as Eanes ISD students returned to classes for a new school year.
It's an optimistic outlook for a superintendent who recently has had to address some rather un-optimistic moments: parents protesting for the lifting of mask mandates, keeping tabs on a changing legal landscape of lawsuits that decide the fate of masks in schools, and teachers and administrators being caught in the middle of it all. It's something he addressed in a letter to parents and staff on Tuesday in which he revealed one of his teachers had been assaulted and another had been yelled at for wearing masks during a meet-the-teacher event ahead of the first day of classes.
In one instance, a parent physically grabbed the mask off of a teacher's face. In a separate incident, a teacher was repeatedly yelled at by a parent who requested the teacher take off their mask, claiming they couldn't hear what the teacher was saying. The events have made waves across the district that consists of nearly 8,000 students and is tucked in the wealthy suburban outskirts of Austin.
The names of those involved and the location of the elementary school where the incidents took place have not been released.
Leonard, who has led the district since 2014, said neither incident was acceptable. Both were indicative of the tensions he, administrators and school staff are wrestling with at the moment.
"We've navigated it, and we're trying to stay out of it as much as we can and try to keep kids safe and try to keep learning sustainable because that's what we do, but when I found out about a couple of the incidents that happened during the few days before school at meet the teacher meetings," Leonard said. "It just isn't right. I don't care what people think about masks."
The incidents come at a time where districts are dealing with competing pressures from state and local governments as a patchwork of mask mandates pop up in cities and counties in open defiance of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that bans such requirements.
Eanes originally planned to comply with Abbott's order and not put in place a mask requirement. But it announced last Friday it would change course after state District Judge Jan Soifer temporarily blocked Abbott's ban on requiring masks in schools and Travis County issued its own order requiring masks in schools.
Then on Sunday evening, the Texas Supreme Court temporarily nixed mask mandates in Bexar and Dallas counties. Eanes officials posted on Twitter soon after that they will "follow the law as it is determined by the highest court at the time in this legal chess match." Then they said in a later statement that they will continue to mandate masks as Travis County's order dictates, but noted there's no legal method to enforce the mandate.
"We will not make our staff the 'mask police' with no authority to enforce the rule," a district spokesperson said at the time.
School officials across the state continue to monitor numerous legal fights over the issue. One of the lawsuits Soifer heard involved parents from multiple school districts, including Eanes.
Meanwhile, outbreaks have already been reported in the state in rural school districts, with at least four school districts having closed their campuses.
According to a recent survey from the Texas American Federation of Teachers, a statewide union that represents educators and school employees, about 80% of more than 7,000 members surveyed agreed that the governor should allow school districts to require masks in schools.
Zeph Capo, vice president of Texas AFT, said there's been an "explosion of teacher and parent concern" in the Eanes ISD area and Central Austin. There are concerns beyond just health-related issues among teachers, Capo said, including if they will face consequences concerning their teaching certification for obliging with mandates that go against the governor's executive order.
"If the district is telling them to enforce a massive mandate, and the state government is saying something differently, what's going to happen?" Capo said. "[The Texas Education Agency] holds their certification, are they going to have repercussions? ... We certainly reassured [teachers] that if they work for a school district, they've got to follow the directives of their school district, and if they receive any type of sanctions or fines we're certainly going to represent them in court."
On Thursday, TEA updated its public health guidance for schools, changing course and now requiring schools to notify parents if there's a positive test confirmed among students. The agency reiterated, however, that it would refrain from offering further guidance on masks in schools while litigation regarding Abbott's executive order is still ongoing.
School leaders and administrators are put in a tight spot this year, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, since many expected to return to a rather normal routine now that vaccinations are more widely available and also offered to children 12 years and older.
"They're trying to navigate what's the right thing to do in their community and that takes some courage ... no matter what you do, you'll be criticized for it," Brown said.
As he navigates the legal idiosyncrasies of mask mandates, Leonard, the Eanes superintendent, also must contend with passionate opinions of parents on both sides of the debate as board meetings and school buildings have become ground zero for debates over masks and school reopenings.
On Tuesday, Jennifer Stevens, whose child attends Westlake High School in Eanes, organized a small rally in front of the district's administrative building for parents who are against mask requirements in school. Stevens currently leads the group Eanes Kids First, which has advocated for a return to in-person learning during the pandemic, and also is against requiring masks to be worn in schools.
"I think it's a little bit of language gymnastics," Stevens said of recent mask requirements.
Stevens described the recent incidents of assault in Eanes ISD as "horrific."
"I mean the parents in this district might disagree with each other, but we all are united in supporting our teachers, and something like this is unacceptable," Stevens said, while calling for more transparency on the incident.
As of Wednesday afternoon, charges have not been filed against the person who assaulted the Eanes teacher and continued conversations are being conducted with parents involved in the two incidents, Leonard said. It is possible, if those conversations are not successful, the district could issue a trespass order to prevent parents responsible from being on district property, he said.
"I don't want to do that to any parent, period, but I also have a responsibility to make sure that my staff feel safe working with kids in classrooms," Leonard said.
In his letter to district parents about the incident, Leonard, who was a principal and school administrator in the Chicago area before coming to Eanes, urged parents to be respectful and that "the kids are watching."
"This type of behavior will not be tolerated in Eanes ISD," Leonard wrote. "Our staff are on the front lines of this pandemic; let's give them some space and grace. Please, I am asking everyone to be kind...do not fight mask wars in our schools."
Chesney Castleberry, a pediatric cardiologist who works at Dell Children's Hospital and whose two children attend elementary school in Eanes ISD, recently made her case for a mask requirement in Eanes at a district board meeting. While there, she and a handful of Eanes ISD parents, who are also physicians, called on board members to act in response to rising coronavirus cases in the state spurred on by the highly contagious delta variant.
Castleberry said one reason she's been so vocal is because of the argument being perpetuated that kids are completely safe from covid, something she doesn't see as 100% reality in her own practice, she said.
"I can tell you, half my clinic today was getting heart screens, because they've gotten COVID," Castleberry said on Wednesday. "... Yes, we don't have the mortality risk or the number of deaths in the pediatric age range, but that doesn't mean that there aren't consequences of rampant spread of COVID. This time around, versus last time around my hospital, we're concerned about beds. I won't say we're full but we're always skirting that edge where we are at a higher capacity than we've been since the pandemic started."
Recent events and rising cases have prompted some of her friends and colleagues to pull their children out of school, Castleberry said.
"I think that's one of the consequences of this becoming just really, really, really highly polarized: is that there are definitely children out there who aren't going to school now because of how vocal and really dug in people are on the issue," she said.
Although students, staff and visitors are required to wear face masks while on school property in Travis County, Leonard said there's little school administrators and teachers can do in terms of enforcement compared to last year when, under guidance from the Texas Education Agency, children who chose not to wear masks were removed to remote school.
"I'm really concerned about the people who are in the trenches right now, who are teachers and coaches and principals and they are struggling if you make them try to enforce this," he said. "It's really hard. Unless TEA gives it some backbone, we can't do it."
For now, Leonard said he's hopeful the episodes of assault on teachers over masks are isolated incidents, but he said he's not taking any chances in letting his district know it's not something he will put up with.
"It's just like when I was a high school principal, sometimes you got to get the people in the room, take a look at them and if there's sincere regret, if you feel that you're not going to have an issue, then you go forward," Leonard said about addressing the parents involved in the two incidents. "But you keep watching, you watch carefully. And then if it happens again, we have a real problem."
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