Dear Montgomery ISD Community,
I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you the direction Montgomery ISD is taking as it relates to Governor Abbott’s recent announcement regarding the required use of face masks or coverings. During our March Regular Board of Trustees meeting this evening, the board adopted a Resolution that maintains the district’s current health protocols through the end of this school year. The Resolution also authorizes the Superintendent to make masks optional beginning May 31, 2021, pending future state law or regulations allow for this to occur. While each of us on the board has our own strong opinions on this issue, I’m thankful that we addressed it respectfully. We all agree that providing our students with an excellent in-person educational experience by keeping schools open and limiting the number of required COVID-19 close contact quarantines must remain our top priority.
It was just over a year ago when our district shut down, for what we thought would be a brief period. Instead, like so many districts across our state and nation, our students never returned to school after Spring Break in March 2020. Our board takes great pride in the fact that our district has been a leader in trying to balance various state regulations while attempting to return to a sense of normalcy for our students and families. We were among the first districts in the nation to return for in-person instruction in August 2020, and we have not required our pre-K through 3rd-grade students to wear masks, as many other districts have done. Additionally, we are all proud and appreciative that our number of students choosing in-person learning as their preferred method of instruction has grown to 94%. Across the state, the average number of students choosing in-person learning is still less than 60%. This is a testament to the resilience and grit of the Montgomery community, especially our teachers and campus staff who have tried their best to make 2020 and 2021 as normal as possible for our students. Our students have inspired me and others with their determination and kindness even though they have seen traditions upended and have dealt with tremendous amounts of stress and loss in some of the most formative years of their youth.
Continuing with our current health protocols, which follow the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) guidelines and requires all staff and students in grades 4 to 12 to wear masks or facial coverings was not an easy decision. It’s important to note that Governor Abbott’s recent executive order, which lifted the statewide mask mandate for Texas’s bars, restaurants, and businesses on March 10, delegated mask requirements for public school districts to be determined by TEA. Following the Governor’s order, TEA directed school districts to continue operating with existing mask requirements in place. However, TEA did allow local school districts to consider lifting the mask mandate through an official action of the board of trustees. The Governor and TEA called for school boards to consider the guidance of local health authorities in making this decision. The Montgomery County Health District voiced strong support for continuing with mask protocols for the remainder of this academic year.
It’s also important to note that, while TEA did allow school boards to consider modifications to mask requirements, it did not make any changes to rules regarding close contact tracing and mandated quarantining when someone on a school campus tests positive for COVID-19. Today, when a student or faculty member tests positive, there are very few individuals having to be quarantined, as everyone in grades 4-12 is required to wear a mask. The rules established by TEA are clear – if all individuals are wearing a mask, close contact rules require only the person who tested positive to be quarantined. Since TEA made no adjustments to its close contact rules, if masks were to become optional, and the person testing positive for COVID-19 was not wearing a mask, all individuals who were within six feet for longer than 15 minutes would have to be quarantined. This is true even if every other individual was wearing a mask, as TEA indicates close contact rules can only be impacted by all parties wearing masks. It is also true that the CDC recently adjusted its close contact protocols to 3 feet of contact. As of yet, TEA has not adjusted its close contact protocols.
By allowing school districts to consider removing mask requirements with existing close contact tracing protocols in place, TEA’s guidance puts school districts in a no-win situation. Districts were never consulted in the implementation of the mask mandate. Asking districts to act now to remove a mandate they had no involvement in forming places local leaders in an unnecessarily contrived situation. Making masks optional without changing close contact rules would lead to a significant increase in the number of students and staff having to be quarantined and would negatively impact our ability to keep schools open and student activities thriving. This, along with guidance from the Montgomery County Health District, is why the overwhelming number of school districts in our region and state are continuing with their current mask-wearing protocols.
District administration consulted with campus principals, PTO/PTA presidents and student leaders, and issued a staff survey regarding the continued wearing of masks in school and district facilities. The overall consensus across each of these groups was, while everyone looks forward to the day when masks will no longer be required, the district’s focus should remain on keeping schools open for in-person instruction and working to ensure extracurricular activities, sports, and graduation ceremonies can successfully occur through the remainder of this school year.
With this in mind, the board also took action on a resolution authorizing the Superintendent to seek responsible modifications from TEA regarding its close contact procedures. There is agreement among our board that if TEA were to make reasonable changes to close contact requirements regarding individuals within a defined radius wearing masks, we could consider a different approach to masks within our school district. Several board members and I have been in communication with local elected officials and are working with TEA and other agencies to advocate for these changes.
The board was also pleased to hear that the district administration was already developing plans to move further toward a sense of normalcy in our schools by opening up campuses to parents and volunteers and our mentor program. Our superintendent, Dr. Heath Morrison, has been working with principals, PTA/PTO presidents and student leaders to have open graduations and award ceremonies, proms, field days, athletic and extracurricular events, and the return of parents, volunteers and mentors in schools. These are encouraging and welcome next steps to returning to the normal activities we want back in our schools.
I know this decision to continue with current mask protocols until May 31 will disappoint many in our community. Please know that your school board members have spent the last few weeks hearing very passionate, compelling opinions on all aspects of this issue. My fellow board members and I truly value so many individuals sharing their voices. What ultimately drove our actions was the focus on keeping our schools, programs and activities open. We want our school district to be able to finish this school year with as many of the normal end-of-year activities as possible. We will continue to advocate that TEA make sensible modifications to its close contact rules so we are not faced with only being able to consider making masks optional by accepting nonsensical rules which will require significant increases of individuals having to be quarantined.
Thank you for your understanding and support as we work diligently to finish this school year strong. Keeping schools open and ensuring high-quality in-person learning can occur has been and will remain our focus. Our community, our state and our nation have been through a lot lately. I ask that MISD staff, families and community members continue to support each other and work together as we emerge from the past year with faith, hope and anticipation for the 2021-2022 school year.
MISD Board of Trustees