On Monday night, the debate over masks greeted the Kerrville Independent School District board of trustees during a polite meeting. The two sides argued for and against mask mandates in the school. The mask opponents appeared to have a slight majority in the audience, notably by not wearing masks.
The battle over facemasks and COVID-19 has proven to be a contentious issue as schools districts in Houston, San Antonio and Dallas moved to institute mask mandates in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott's mask mandate ban.
"We are mandated not to mandate," KISD Superintendent Mark Foust clarified to the audience that packed the board room.
Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton won a victory in the Texas Supreme Court over the weekend that overturned lower court victories for the big cities and counties, experiencing the brunt of COVID-19 cases during the summer surge.
The usual arguments were made by both sides — often with vigor and passion. The anti-mask side said masks were useless, led to mental health issues related to isolation and only parents had the right to choose medical advice for their children. The pro-mask side pointed out that masks were preventative tools to stop the spread to vulnerable community members, and not masking also presents mental health challenges.
In an effort to bridge the divide, Trustee Michael Tackett, reading from a statement, argued that he didn't believe in mask mandates but supported those who choose to have their children wear masks. Tackett, an operations director with Kerrville-based construction firm JR Bernhard, said his experience taught him to use data to make informed decisions.
Tackett then delivered an assessment that the nation's death toll was worse when masking and social distancing requirements were required compared to now when those recommendations and orders are relaxed. The commentary was subjective with the facts, especially the death toll and mask efficacy, but it seemed to please those in the crowd who didn't want masks. Tackett, however, made it clear that masks do provide a measure of protection and that he would protect anyone's right to feel safe.
The mask issue was a rallying cry for conservative- and liberal-leaning groups across the state. Beto O'Rourke, a possible gubernatorial candidate, tweeted that parents should attend school board meetings across Texas to argue for masking in schools.
WHAT ABOUT THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL?
Monday was the first day of school and despite some grousing about the traffic, officials were pleased with the outcome. Of course, the great unknown is how COVID-19 will behave as students return to class.
Kerrville Supt. Mark Foust said it seemed like everyone drove their children to school on the first day of the new Hal Peterson Middle School. That helped create a traffic jam along Loop 534 as Tivy High School students arrived for class simultaneously.
"We really expect it will be a better traffic pattern," Foust told the board of trustees Monday night.
Overall, Foust said he was pleased with the first day of school.
"It was wonderful to have students back in schools and safely in class," Foust said. "We fed them a nutritious lunch, and safely got them home. We consider that a success. We are happy to have them back on campuses."
Over at Ingram High School, Principal Justin Crittenden said he was happy to be having a normal day of school compared to the chaos of the last year.
Crittenden said about 10% of students were wearing masks and there seemed to be little concern about COVID-19 at the campus.
KISD ADOPTS A BUDGET
Amid mask discussions, Kerrville's board of trustees adopted the 2021-2021 fiscal year budget, which calls for a lower tax rate. Property owners will now pay $1.052 for every $100 of assessed values. The amount lowers the tax rate from $1.15. Of course, assessed values are significantly higher across the district's footprint for the upcoming fiscal year.
Much of the district's spending is on salaries and the trustees approved a plan that calls for incentives to keep teachers. The district said it would:
Give a 2% minimum raise for all employees; Adjustments to the teacher pay scale; Equity adjustments across the district; Increase in fine arts, bilingual, athletics, and some travel stipends; Increase in the district's contribution towards health insurance.