Austin ISD lifts mask mandate for students and staff members

Senior Caroline Rasmussen walked through the same doors she does every day on Monday morning, but this time, something was different.

Several students and staff members weren’t wearing masks, those that had been worn for consistently two years, have been taken off.

Although she was fascinated to see the bottom half of people’s faces for the first time this year, she couldn’t help but wonder about how quickly the virus was spreading now without covered faces.

“People have different medical conditions that we don’t know about,” Rasmussen said. “If some people don’t wear masks, then that affects everyone and it can spread to people who are immunocompromised.”

On Wednesday, March 2, 2022, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) school board decided that the mask mandate was over for all schools in the district starting Monday, March 7, 2022. The Board called this special meeting on Wednesday to respond to updated CDC guidelines and aligned their protocols with the CDC. 

“In my opinion, ending the mask mandate is the right thing to do right now,” government teacher Dalton Pool said. “Data shows Omicron is waning and it has been less severe for those who contracted it, especially for those vaccinated. Now that every one five and older have had the opportunity to get vaccinated, hospitalizations are down, and breakthrough infections are rarely severe we need to get back to as normal as possible.”

Despite the decision release, students and staff have mixed feelings on whether or not to drop everything and take off their masks.

“I heard about the decision from AISD  and I don’t agree with it at all,” Rasmussen said. “I think it’s ridiculous and I will be continuing to wear my mask at school.”

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their mask guidelines, AISD sent out a survey asking students and staff members about wearing masks in schools. Thousands of people weighed in on AISD’s survey on masks in schools. The results stated that 39% of survey respondents said masks should be optional now, 31% said they want the mandate to stay for the rest of the school year, 20% want local health officials to make that call, and 10% said they wanted to “wait a few more weeks to ensure cases continue to decline.”

“I have been discussing this in my classes this week and the students are split over their desires to be free from the masks and their concern about spreading the virus to the more susceptible,” English teacher Matt Flickinger said. “I personally feel okay removing my mask as I’m boosted and I want to see my students’ faces.” 

Even with some students wanting to continue taking precautions, senior Austin Dalbey wants to interact with his friends face to face for the first time in two years.

“I don’t even remember what some of my friends look like, and I  don’t know at all that new people’s faces look like, all out of people’s panic to prevent kids from getting a very mild illness, nearly identical to a cold or allergies,” Dalbey said. “We used to go to school with a mild cold or allergies or similar symptoms and not get tested, but now we have to be in perfect health, and ban facial expressions, which are an essential part of human communication, all to fuel someone’s delusion that masks stop people from getting COVID-19.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the omicron variant accounted for 58.6 percent of all Covid cases in the country in the week ending k ending Dec. 25, 2021, , while the delta variant accounted for 41.1 percent of cases. With Spring Break coming up, there is a lot of uncertainty on how the break will affect case numbers. 

“I don’t think Spring Break should factor in much,” Pool said. “Community spread of Omicron has been a reality in Austin and most other U.S. cities for some time.  We are not going to eradicate Covid-19. Our best hope is that Covid-19 becomes endemic, and after Omicron it appears we are on that track right now. 

According to an email AISD sent to their community last night, by their numbers, there has been a 97% drop in student and staff cases in the past six weeks. To put that in perspective, our current case total (59 cases) represents 0.09% of our total students and staff (over 85,000 people). 

“We will abide by the CDCs recommendations starting Monday, March 7. As always, please keep in mind that the fluidity of this pandemic may require that we reinstate a masking requirement,” superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said.

Even with the lifted mask mandate and its sparking controversy among the AISD community, Flick believes that enduring the pandemic itself for two years is an accomplishment of its own.

“I’m proud of most of our students for their willingness to protect others and themselves by wearing their masks all year,” Flick said. “This generation is inspiring as they deal with one catastrophe after another.”