11:25 p.m. Jan. 18: This story was updated to reflect that the mask requirement takes effect Tuesday, Jan. 25.
El Paso’s largest school district will temporarily require face masks — despite the governor’s prohibition on such mandates — as the region sees sharply rising coronavirus infections due to the spread of the contagious omicron variant.
The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees voted 4-3 Tuesday to require students, teachers and staff to wear face coverings on campuses from Jan. 25 through Feb. 15.
Families have until Jan. 25 to opt their students out of the requirement, which must be communicated to the district. Staff can also opt out. Details on how to do that were not immediately available.
The opt-out provision will not apply to anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 10 days.
Trustees Josh Acevedo, Leah Hanany, Israel Irrobali and Freddy Klayel-Avalos voted in favor of the new mask requirement. Trustees Daniel Call, Isabel Hernandez and Al Velarde voted against it.
Velarde said he views the new requirement as akin to a local mask mandate, something Gov. Greg Abbott has banned through executive order. Various cities and districts are challenging that order in court.
“I hate that we’re in this position because I would like to be able to do more, but I also feel very comfortable that we’re doing everything that we can within the constraints that we have,” Velarde said after the meeting.
EPISD is already facing a lawsuit from a group of parents who sued after it continued requiring masks this fall. The board rescinded that mandate in early October.
The new EPISD policy comes about a week after the Texas Education Agency updated its quarantine guidance for COVID-positive school employees. Employees can now return to campus five days after testing positive if they have no symptoms, or if they have no fever and have seen improvement in symptoms.
That change is in line with updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that recommended shortening the quarantine period from 10 to five days if people wear a mask for the remaining five days “to minimize the risk of infecting people they encounter.”
The TEA still recommends students quarantine for a full 10 days after testing positive or after symptoms begin.
EPISD’s quarantine policy is for COVID-positive students or those with a “close contact high exposure” to remain at home for 10 days. Families, however, can opt out of their students completing this quarantine if they were possibly exposed and are not showing symptoms.
The superintendent could eventually decide to shorten the quarantine window for students in line with CDC guidance, Hanany said after the meeting.
“By providing the directive for the superintendent to implement this (mask) policy and procedure, it’s now opened the door for them to be able to create policies that would be more in line with the CDC,” Hanany said. “That is going to be at the superintendent’s discretion but we have faith that she’ll be able to implement the policies that are going to keep our students safe and keep them in school.”
The Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet Feb. 15 and could vote on whether to extend the mask requirement.
Cover photo: Bowie High School students listen to new EPISD Superintendent Diana Sayavedra during her Jan. 4 visit to the campus. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)