A teacher took the temperature of a student returning to in-person learning Jan. 19 at Dr. Joseph E. Torres Elementary School in Northeast El Paso. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Independent School District)

At the height of the fall coronavirus case surge, a now-candidate seeking to represent Central El Paso families on the EPISD school board called into question the efficacy of face masks.

“The masks are not 100% and it’s debatable whether they do anything really,” Leslie Hoard wrote in the comments on an October 2020 post in the “Let School Bells Ring” Facebook group. A month prior, she called the use of masks “theater” because they “can’t stop the spread of the virus.” “Fabric masks are laughable. We should be back in school with no masks,” she wrote.

Last August, she wrote that “a cold could literally take them out,” in reference to her family members with underlying health conditions: “When it’s your time, it’s your time. I would never, ever ask the world to sacrifice their children’s mental health to keep my family member ‘safe.’ That is so misguided.”

Although some school board candidates decided to run due to the El Paso Independent School District’s decision to offer virtual instruction through January, none of the 17 people vying for four open seats has weighed in publicly on EPISD’s mask policy — something they have the power to change.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott ended the statewide mask mandate in March, it has been up to school boards to decide whether to make masks optional. Unless there is board action, the Texas Education Agency requires masks be worn inside public schools.

No El Paso County district has opted to make masks voluntary. More than 2,600 El Pasoans have died from COVID-19. El Paso has the highest per-capita death rate since July of any U.S. county with more than 500,000 residents.

Leslie Hoard

Reached Monday, Hoard was reluctant to outline her position on masks.

“I haven’t given the mask thing a whole lot of thought just because I feel like there’s much bigger issues going on in EPISD right now,” she said. “I sort of think the mask thing and when the schools are going to open again, that’s all going to kind of work itself out.”

The leader of the El Paso chapter of the American Federation of Teachers recently took to the union’s Facebook page to criticize Hoard’s previous Facebook comments.

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“Let School Bells Ring” became a virtual gathering space for parents unsatisfied with EPISD’s decision to offer virtual instruction for the first half of the 2020-21 school year. The group now functions as an outlet to voice frustrations with the district, including its decision to require students to wear masks on campuses.

For months, El Paso AFT President Ross Moore has swapped attacks — both online and during school board meetings — with the group’s founder, Kendal Brown Jessup.

The science on masks

Though masks have been hotly debated in Texas, the science and medical community firmly stands behind them as an effective way to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Since last April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended the use of masks in public settings, including schools. Masks are one of the five “key prevention strategies” the CDC emphasizes for safely returning students to the classroom.

A student at Dr. Josefina Villamil Tinajero PK-8 school in South-Central El Paso wore a required mask when she was allowed to return for in-person schooling Jan. 19. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Independent School District)

As more people are vaccinated against the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has urged Americans to continue wearing masks.

In an interview with El Paso Matters, Hoard expressed support for temperature checks, frequent hand washing and staying home if feeling sick, prevention strategies the CDC also recommends.

She has described herself as a “pro life candidate” on campaign mailers and cited her Christian faith as the basis behind her Facebook comment that “when it’s your time, it’s your time.”

“God knows what the plans for us are. I’m just a person, I’m a human, you know — that’s all I meant by that,” she said.

Hoard is endorsed by Kids First PAC, which has given her about $3,300, according to her April 1 campaign finance report.

CREEED Executive Director Eddie Rodriguez, who serves as the PAC’s treasurer, said Kids First PAC was unaware of her Facebook posts prior to endorsing her. The PAC would continue to support her, he said.

“During the PAC’s conversations with her, it was clear that she shared the PAC’s commitment to increasing student attainment and understands the major mission of supporting schools that graduate more students who are college-ready,” Rodriguez wrote in an email.

He didn’t directly answer when asked whether her social media posts reflect the initiatives of the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Education Development to boost science, technology, engineering and math education in El Paso public schools. CREEED has been following CDC guidelines, he wrote, and its directors believe “it is important that discussions regarding public health must be led by those guidelines, particularly as it relates to classroom instruction.”

What other candidates say about mask requirements

The Texas Education Agency has yet to release COVID-19 safety guidelines for this summer or next school year, including whether masks will still be required.

Fauci anticipates all children will be able to be vaccinated against coronavirus by early 2022, if not sooner. Currently, vaccines are restricted to those 16 and older.

Burges High School students returned to in-person learning on Jan. 19. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Independent School District)

At this time, a COVID-19 vaccine is not required for Texas public school teachers, staff or students and the governor has underscored that the vaccine is optional.

Rene Fierro

Hoard is not the only District 3 candidate who wishes EPISD had abandoned masks this spring.

Though he was “fine with the decision” to still require masks on campus, Rene Fierro said he would have preferred for masks to be voluntary after the state mandate ended.

“I think some students didn’t even want to go back to the schools for that reason,” Fierro said of the mask requirement.

Fierro would like masks to be optional in the fall. “I would like a return to as much of normal as possible when schools resume in the fall,” he said.

Hoard would not give a definite answer when asked whether she supported the board’s March decision to not lift EPISD’s mask requirements.

“I’d like to not go back in hindsight,” she said. “I think the board did the best they could do with the information they had available at the time. I think things are changing so quickly that even the people on the board at the time might not have made the same decision today as they did then.”

District 3 incumbent Josh Acevedo supports that decision, as do all of the candidates vying for the District 1, 4 and 5 seats.

District 4 candidate Claudia Soto was the only person who did not return El Paso Matters’ request for comment.

Most candidates polled said they would keep EPISD’s mask mandate in place for the immediate future if elected May 1, unless CDC or local health guidelines were to change and masks were no longer recommended.

Stephen Hayes

Stephen Hayes, who is running for District 5, said he would be in favor of lifting the requirement though he appreciated the cautious approach trustees took in the spring by keeping it in place.

“Now that we haven’t seen a significant spike due to the relaxing of the (state mask) mandate, I think going ahead and relaxing the mandate for the schools would be the right thing to do,” Hayes said, noting the rate of vaccinations in the community is steadily increasing.

Hoard said she would want to hear from “the community about how they feel” about EPISD’s mask policy.

“It’s really not about what I personally think,” she said. “It’s about what the people who vote for me and what the community thinks.”

Thirty-six percent of El Pasoans aged 16 and older are fully vaccinated, and 57% have received the first dose, according to state data.

New COVID-19 infections have remained flat since the state mandate ended March 10. Health experts have pointed to businesses’ decision to continue requiring masks as one reason why Texas has not seen a coronavirus surge. Many say it’s too soon to know whether the state will avoid a surge due to more contagious virus variants.

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Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.