Round Rock school district approves limiting mask opt-out option

Rebeccah Macias
Austin American-Statesman
The Round Rock school board approved on Tuesday night to limit who can opt-out on the district's mask mandate. Any students or staff that wish to opt-out must now require documentation of a medical or developmental to mask wearing.

The Round Rock school board on Tuesday night  voted to limit who can opt out of the district's mask mandate.

Beginning on Thursday, any students and staff whowish to not wear a mask at school must provide documentation of a medical or developmental need.  The measure was passed on a 5-2 vote, with trustees Danielle Weston and Mary Bone voting against.

"The opt-out will be stricter and we will allow for parents and staff up to a week to resubmit or provide that health or medical documentation," Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez said.

Azaiez said information on requesting an exemption will be provided to parents via email and will be posted on the district's website. 

On Wednesday morning, Trustee Jun Xiao said in a Facebook post that he will announce his resignation at the next board meeting, citing frustration with the district not upholding a firmer mask mandate sooner and the division the issue is causing.  

"Last night's meeting should have happened two weeks ago," Xiao said. "The meeting discussions should have been based on reasoning and science. It should have been an unanimous 7-0 decision. Instead, our community is deeply divided on this simple public health measure, fueled by misinformation, distrust and exacerbated by tribal politics."

Under the district's updated mask protocol, students, faculty and visitors will still be required to wear masks on buses and while inside school buildings when 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained. Students and staff also will still have the option of removing their masks while seated in cafeterias, staff lunchrooms and outdoors. 

Motions by Weston and Bone to take no action on the mask opt-outs until the Texas Supreme Court comes to a decision and to require optional mask wearing after Sept. 7 failed on 5-2 votes. 

Last week, the board approved a temporary mask mandate set to expire on Sept. 17. However, the board has a regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 16 and could vote to extend the requirement if conditions warrant. 

Before the vote Tuesday night, 150 people spoke for or against removing the district's opt-out option. 

Round Rock resident Sarah Harrelson, who has a 9-year-old and eighth and ninth grade students enrolled in the district, said her children told her the masks make it hard to breathe. 

"As a school district, we're going along with what is popular, we are going along with what everybody else is doing," Harrelson said. "Every other school district is doing this. That's not what we teach our kids to do: to buck the system, to fight for your rights, to stand up for yourself." 

RELATED: Round Rock students, parents begin another pandemic school year 

Round Rock High School senior Jacob Mitchell said he wants the board to remove the opt-out option because he feels unsafe and uncomfortable when walking the halls and in the classrooms at school with an optional mask policy.

"I'm not here to throw statistics at you as I'm sure you have someone much more qualified that can present to you the exact benefits of wearing a mask, but to make that decision without hearing the statistics from a credible source would be an act of extreme irresponsibility," Mitchell said. 

Although there were multiple parents whosaid the district is breaking the law by having a mask mandate, Jenny Wells, the district's interim general counsel, said it is unlikely to be penalized for complying with the Texas Education Agency's guidance. 

"Several things happened, some of which I might have not explained as clearly, but the main things that were happening were all the legal challenges that were taking place throughout the state against Executive Order 38," Wells said, referring to Gov. Greg Abbott's order that prohibits mask mandates by cities, counties, school districts and public health officials.

The Texas Supreme Court declined to overturn temporary restraining orders on the executive order issued by a Travis County state judge, including one that applies to Round Rock schools that are in Travis County and the city of Austin. 

"The city of Austin and Travis County currently both have orders that apply to our schools in those jurisdictions," Wells said. "Travis County and the city of Austin is requiring masks by students, staff and visitors in all public schools within those jurisdictions. For any public school that does not require masks can be deemed a public health nuisance and the city and county could take action against those schools to come in compliance with those orders." 

The TEA also released new guidance that the state is not enforcing the governor's executive order banning mask requirements in public schools due to ongoing legal battles in state and federal courts. 

"They are not going to enforce anti-mask provisions until the legal proceedings could be completed," Wells said.