AUSTIN, Texas -- At least three members of the State Board of Education tested positive for COVID-19 after meeting in person for four days in November, according to multiple board members.
Georgina Pérez, an El Paso Democrat, said she tested positive. Two other board members also tested positive, board chair Keven Ellis told The Texas Tribune. All three tests came within two weeks of Nov. 20, the last day of the board meeting, according to Ellis and Pérez.
Support staff for the board sent emails to members last Monday and Tuesday telling them the two members had tested positive. Those two members did not respond to interview requests Tuesday, and the Tribune is not naming them, pending comment. Three board members confirmed the contents of the emails to the Tribune.
The 15-member board meets five times per year to discuss curriculum standards and textbook approvals - in short, what 5.5 million Texas public school students are required to learn each year. Its April and June meetings were held virtually, as COVID-19 cases spiked. But the September and November meetings were held in person, with exceptions for members who wanted to participate from home, Ellis said.
None of the support staff members in the room have since tested positive, according to Ellis. Members of the public who testified at the board meeting did so virtually.
Pérez said she told a few board members about her positive test, after they reached out to her, but that she did not tell the board's staff. The archived video of November's meeting shows Pérez wearing two masks much of the time - more consistently than most other members. But at times, she took it off to speak at the microphone, which she said was to avoid sounding muffled. The virus' symptoms hit her hard Thanksgiving Day: One minute she was merely congested and within the next hour, she couldn't stand up or walk. She said she tested positive Nov. 30.
To her, the cases are proof that Texas needs to be more cautious about getting back to normal until a vaccine is made readily available. She said that's especially true as state leaders prepare for a legislative session starting in January.
"This needs to be a cautionary tale because sending people back to classrooms or getting ready to hold the legislative session before we're all vaccinated, it's not just dangerous. People are going to die," she said.
Four Republican board members - Matt Robinson, Tom Maynard, Pam Little and Marty Rowley - told the Tribune they chose not to get tested after being notified of the two positive cases because they did not have any symptoms. They said they did not know about Pérez's positive test. Ellis did get a test and tested negative. The Tribune reached out by phone or email to every other board member Tuesday evening, but most did not respond.
Experts say that layering safety precautions, including wearing masks and social distancing, is the best way to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Ellis said members' desks in the room were at least 10 feet apart and many wore masks to go to the bathroom or when in close contact with others.
But the livestream of the meeting showed many members not wearing masks while seated at their desks. A few Republicans said they felt they were far enough away from other members and masks were not necessary.
"I wasn't aware that six feet indoors was different from six feet outdoors," said Little, a Fairview Republican.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises hosting gatherings and events outdoors if possible and wearing masks when less than six feet apart or indoors.
Little said she still feels comfortable with in-person meetings. Though she understands the dangers of the coronavirus, she is frustrated that "everyone is so scared of it that they're letting it monopolize their lives."
Just over three hours into the Nov. 18 meeting, Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican, walked to Pérez's desk and talked to her closely without a mask on. Pérez, who had removed her mask to address other members during a discussion, did not put it back on.
Hardy did not respond to a request for comment. Pérez said she regretted that decision but it shows how easy it is to make mistakes and unintentionally compromise safety.
"That's clearly a mistake that I made. Knowing that I know better and it just didn't dawn on me to do it, what does that say for the danger we're putting a whole bunch of little kids in?" she said.
Ellis, who is a chiropractor, stopped short of saying he would mandate masks in the future.
"I wouldn't go to a mandate," he said. "But I would have a very good discussion with each member about how we can minimize the risk at all possible."
He said he would consider "working toward" changes such as providing personal protective equipment and rapid testing for members at future in-person meetings.
Maynard, a Florence Republican, questioned whether Pérez had been infected at the board meeting.
"There's a big outbreak in El Paso," he said. "When you have that level of community spread, can you conclusively tie it to that?"
Maynard said his wife, a real estate appraiser, tested positive Monday, and that he has not had symptoms. He believes his wife was likely infected in the process of doing her job and that her case is not connected to the board meeting. He has consulted a doctor who suggested waiting a few days to get tested.
Pérez, who still has a persistent cough and low energy, acknowledged she may not have gotten COVID-19 at the meeting.
"I'm in a hot spot in the nation, so maybe I got it somewhere in El Paso," she said. "Maybe I got in on the plane. Except for the fact that since March, the only place I've gone is to SBOE meetings."
Aicha Davis, a Dallas Democrat, decided to stay home and attend virtually. But it did not appear easy for her to participate in November's meeting. At times, her audio sometimes cut out or was difficult to hear, although Ellis and board staff helped to ensure she could participate.
Pérez said she chose to attend the meeting in person because she didn't want to risk missing her opportunity to help revise an outdated sex education policy that hadn't been changed in decades.
"If I didn't go, would I have gotten my comprehensive sex ed amendments done?" she said. "Obviously I weighed the risks and thought representing my district was more important than not."
The incident comes ahead of January's state legislative session where Republican leaders are still considering what safety requirements to put in place to limit COVID-19 spread. The scale of the session is much greater than the board's meetings because it requires hundreds of people over the course of 140 days.
A state House leader recently suggested that masks may be required in all public areas of the Texas Capitol and that building occupancy could be limited. And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is considering requiring members of the public to get tested for the coronavirus 24 hours before testifying at a hearing.
Ellis said he has worked to balance the needs of constituents with the public safety of members and staff.
"If there was a good, easy, simple, productive way to do this, we'd all be doing it," he said.
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