Open letter to Gov. Abbott and Commissioner Morath on commitment to school safety

Photo of Governor Greg Abbott and T-E-A Commissioner Mike Morath

October 21, 2020

Gov. Greg Abbott
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711

Commissioner Mike Morath
Texas Education Agency
1701 N. Congress Ave. 
Austin, Texas 78701

Dear Gov. Abbott and Commissioner Morath:

The COVID-19 pandemic is not finished with the state of Texas, just as it is not finished with the United States or the rest of the world. As the push to “reopen” the state continues, so too does the number of positive COVID-19 cases. 

Communities like the El Paso region are fighting escalating numbers of people hospitalized for COVID-19 (with hospital beds in the region at about 75% capacity) while on the verge of opening public schools for in-person instruction. More than 4,775 of El Paso’s 34,035 cumulative COVID-19 cases have been school-age kids. 

What will happen when children return to crowded schools, where social distancing is impossible and where enforcement of basic safety measures like mask-wearing is spotty at best? People will get sick: teachers, staff, and, yes, students. Some will be hospitalized, and some will die. It will be a loss without reason. 

This isn’t merely the story in El Paso. Schools across the state already have opened their doors for some level of in-person instruction. We have been monitoring the situation with our own COVID-19 tracking site, stopthespreadtx.school, which provides educators, school employees, parents, and community members the opportunity to report on safety conditions at their schools. In more than 2,300 user-submitted reports, several consistent safety concerns have emerged. 

Central among those themes is the inability or unwillingness of schools and districts to enforce mask-wearing for students and employees. In its SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance, most recently updated September 24, the Texas Education Agency stated explicitly that “schools are required to comply with the governor’s executive order regarding the wearing of masks.” The governor’s July 2 order requires Texans older than age 10 to wear face coverings in public buildings and spaces, unless they meet specific exception criteria. 

Yet, what we see in the reports to our tracker tells a different story, one of teachers, bus drivers, and other school employees struggling to get students, colleagues, and administrators to comply with basic, life-saving precautions like mask-wearing. 

  •  “Walking around campus, the amount of people (students, teachers, and staff) that don’t wear their mask properly is staggering.” 
  •  “All kitchen staff and cafeteria staff are wearing masks, but some students have taken theirs off or worn incorrectly right in front of a register while admins are supposed to be on watch.”
  • “Business as usual — no mask enforcement.” 

These are just some of the comments we see, and they reflect a widespread issue that invites questions: 

  • What authority have schools and districts been given to enforce the governor’s order? 
  • How is TEA logging and addressing received complaints about non-compliance or safety concerns? 
  • What commitment will you both make to use your pulpits to support masking in public schools?
  • Are you willing to stand with us and develop a joint PSA on the importance of wearing a mask in school?  

Our goal is the health and safety of our public schools and their students, educators, and employees. Accordingly, we are deeply disturbed by these statewide reports of unsafe conditions and a lack of compliance for the most basic, most essential safety practices like mask-wearing. Addressing these problems will save lives, and we are eager to hear how the state plans to do just that, particularly as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations tick upward once more. 

We don’t always agree on policy decisions, but we should never allow differences to stand in the way of doing whatever is in our power to create the safest environments for our students and our staff members. 

Professionally, 

Zeph Capo 
Texas AFT President