Waco public school students, teachers and staff will be required to wear masks beginning Monday due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Waco schools, Waco ISD Superintendent Susan Kincannon said Thursday.
In a letter to families and school employees, Kincannon said she will order face masks to be worn inside all schools and district buildings, noting that since classes started Monday, 55 people that had spent time at a campus or other facility had tested positive for COVID-19.
Kincannon said she had seen masks worn voluntarily by teachers and students in her campus visits this week, but felt additional action was necessary given the current surge of COVID-19 cases in McLennan County. The number of cases reported in the district in less than a week’s time was only matched last year during the height of the pandemic last winter.
“In my visits to schools this week, I was heartened to see many (but by no means all) of our students and employees voluntarily wearing masks,” Kincannon wrote. “Masks have repeatedly been shown to reduce the spread of the virus, and increasing the number of people wearing masks will make our schools a safer place in the midst of this pandemic. We will continue to consult with medical experts and monitor both legal and public health developments. Right now, though, I believe that Waco ISD has to do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
Waco-McLennan County Health Authority Dr. Farley Verner backed Kincannon’s action. In a statement released Thursday, Verner, an infectious disease specialist, said children’s ability to transmit infection means increased pressure on community transmission levels.
“Universal masking in the school setting will be expected to significantly reduce the risk of in-school transmission, school outbreaks and school closures,” he wrote. “While children are less likely to have severe disease as a result of Covid infection their ability to transmit infection to others in the home is similar to older people. This then results in increased transmission in the community. Any increase in community transmission at this time will put potentially intolerable stress on the local hospitals and healthcare systems.”
The Waco-McLennan County Health District reported on Thursday 249 new COVID-19 cases and one new death among McLennan County residents. Waco hospitals were treating 175 COVID-19 patients, including 39 on ventilators. The death brings to 518 the number of McLennan County residents who have died from COVID-19. The county on Thursday had 1,434 active cases. Of the COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of Thursday, 92.4% were unvaccinated, the health district reported.
State vaccination numbers show 54.38% of McLennan County residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines have received at least one dose, and 44.62% are fully vaccinated. Of the county’s population 65 and older, 80.67% have received at least one dose, and 70.86% are fully vaccinated.
Kincannon’s action is in line with similar mask mandates ordered in larger school districts such as Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, but contravenes Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning local government entities including school districts from mandating masks to slow coronavirus spread.
The Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked mask mandates in San Antonio and Bexar County on Thursday.
The Texas Education Agency has informed school districts the prohibition against school mask mandates would not be enforced until the issue is resolved in the courts.
Kincannon said the time to take action is now, regardless of a mandate’s ultimate legal resolution.
“The reports that we are hearing from health care leaders are too urgent to wait until there is a final resolution to the ongoing litigation,” Kincannon wrote to parents and teachers. “I did not make this decision lightly, and we will continue to monitor legal developments. However, faced with the growing number of cases in our schools and our community, I felt that we had to act now.”
The district will continue to provide free masks to students and teachers, as it did last school year.
Waco NAACP President Peaches Henry, who sent a letter to the Waco ISD board and Kincannon earlier this month in favor of a mask mandate, said Thursday she is “pleased” and grateful to Kincannon for the decision.
“It is imperative that we protect our children,” Henry said. “Given that our vaccination rate is so low, it’s important that we put into place the protections that we can, and a mask mandate is an easy protective measure that we can take as we wait for more people to become vaccinated.”
Tribune-Herald writer Rhiannon Saegert contributed to this report.