'A community ripped apart' Fort Bend ISD board approves mask mandate

FORT BEND COUNTY, Texas -- In a 4-3 vote, the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees gave approval for Acting Superintendent Diana Sayavedra to issue a mask mandate for students, employees and visitors at FBISD campuses.

The motion, made by Trustee Jim Rice, states that the mandate will be in effect so long as such mandates are legal and includes an amendment that allows the district to develop protocols to address special circumstances such as for outdoor settings, buses, extracurricular activities and special education students.

The mask mandate will go into effect as drafted, FBISD officials said. But the district has not picked a date for when masks will be required.

Rice, along with Trustees Angie Hanan, Shirley Rose-Gilliam and Denetta Williams voted in favor of the motion, while Trustees Dave Rosenthal, Judy Dae and Kristen Davison Malone opposed the mask mandate.

"The No. 1 item is forever about the safety and security of our children and if we know something can assist in ensuring their safety, we are obliged to do that," Rose-Gilliam said.

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An amendment proposed by Rosenthal, who serves as board president, would have limited the mask mandate to elementary-age students who are unable to be vaccinated and set the mask mandate to expire on Sept. 13, the date of an upcoming board meeting. However, that motion failed 4-3 along the same lines.

Despite voting against the mandate, Rosenthal called for unity, saying the community has been "ripped apart by this virus and by this mask issue."

"The reality is a mask mandate, while currently enforceable, could easily be moot by the week's end depending on what the Texas Supreme Court does," Rosenthal said.

The board's decision comes after the Texas Education Agency announced it will not enforce Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order that bans counties and school districts from implementing a mask mandate due to "ongoing litigation."

Among that litigation includes a Fort Bend County temporary restraining order blocking Abbott's executive order that was upheld by a district judge Aug. 19. Fort Bend County Judge KP George has repeatedly called on school districts to enact a mask mandate.

Additionally, Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson-Minter, the director of Fort Bend County Health and Human Services and local health authority, has issued guidance recommending masks in schools.

"I believe that universal masking is necessary in order to mitigate the spread of disease within your schools," Johnson-Minter said during the Aug. 23 meeting.

Fort Bend ISD has a total of 791 active positive cases, with 109 staff cases and 682 student cases, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard, which was updated at 10 p.m. Aug. 23. The district has pivoted Pecan Grove Elementary to remote learning to mitigate the spread of disease effective Aug. 24, according to an email sent to families at that campus.

Additionally, hospitalization data from the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council shows 86 pediatric hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in the Greater Houston area. There is one child hospitalized with COVID-19 in Fort Bend County. However, local health officials said because the main children's hospitals are located in Harris County, pediatric cases from Fort Bend County are often relocated there.

Malone asked for the district to develop data benchmarks that would show the effectiveness of a mask mandate and indicate when it may no longer be needed.

During the six-hour meeting, more than 50 parents and community members signed up to speak on both sides of the mask debate.

Maysum Syed, a senior at Travis High School, said he supports a mask mandate because he fears getting COVID-19 and infecting his family and community. Without the mandate, a lot of students and teachers at school are not wearing masks, he said.

"There's still a way to go to school safely, and that's with masks," Syed said, adding that this is especially true for students who are too young to be vaccinated.

Those who spoke against a mask mandate, including Kellie Pope, advocated for personal choice and asked that healthcare decisions are left in the hands of individual families. Those against the mask mandate also said data regarding pediatric cases and hospitalizations does not support masks.

"It's my responsibility if [my kids] get sick, to keep them home. It's my responsibility if they got sick and they died, God forbid that happens ... COVID's not going away and it's still my responsibility," Pope said during public comment.