In Texas, elementary schools are required by law to notify parents within 48 hours if a student in their child’s class becomes aware they have head lice, and provide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations on how to treat and prevent the infestation.
But last week, the Texas Education Agency announced that the same practice will not apply to positive cases of the novel coronavirus—despite the mass surge of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the Lone Star State fueled by low vaccination numbers and the highly transmissible Delta variant.
Adding to the chaos, of course, is that most elementary school children are under the age of 12, and therefore not yet eligible for one of the three vaccines available in the United States.
“Lice is apparently more dangerous in Texas than COVID,” Crystal Blackerby, 40, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “Kids can essentially be sent to school with COVID, and parents have zero knowledge of it. It’s just unsafe.”
The new guidelines have effectively forced Blackerby, who is a creative director for a local distillery in Fort Worth, to opt to home-school her 5-year-old daughter, Hazel Jane, for the second year in a row. Her hope had been to allow her to join the rest of her kindergarten class set to go back to school on Aug. 18.
While Blackerby said it was obvious she needed to keep her daughter home due to COVID-19 concerns and Hazel Jane’s respiratory issues last year, the decision to continue at-home education while working full-time herself is a new “challenge” in 2021.
“It feels like a hopeless battle, but I am a determined mother that is willing to do anything to protect her child,” Blackerby said. “With TEA announcing their new guidelines, I will be given no choice but to home-school again.”
The Texas Education Agency guidance released Thursday states that schools are not required to inform parents of any positive COVID cases nor contact trace—though they must provide that information to state and local health departments. Schools do still have to direct students who test positive to stay home and quarantine for at least ten days.
“Given the data from 2020-21 showing very low COVID-19 transmission rates in a classroom setting and data demonstrating lower transmission rates among children than adults, school systems are not required to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing,” the guidelines state.
They effectively pass the buck to health departments, who in turn can inform schools, who in turn could inform parents of other students facing potential exposure.
“If school systems are made aware that a student is a close contact, the school system should notify the student’s parents,” the guidance says.
The guidance adds that school districts cannot require students or staff to wear a mask at any time—complying with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order that forbids mandates in educational buildings, a cause taken up by fellow GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida.
Experts suggested the rules were a fiasco in the making.
“This guidance—in its prohibition of mask mandates, the lack of contact tracing, and the lack of parental notification—seems unwise, especially with the heightened risks associated with the Delta variant,” Genevieve Kanter, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine who studies disparities in health care, told The Daily Beast. “Unfortunately, it is likely to contribute to increases in COVID cases in Texas, not just among school children, but also among adults and particularly high-risk populations.”
On Thursday, Abbott revealed his agenda for the upcoming special legislative session this past weekend, which was to include keeping masking and COVID-19 vaccination optional.
The Republican governor’s plans run directly counter to guidance from the CDC, which recently recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. The Governor’s office and The Texas Education Agency did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
“It certainly seems as if the [masking] decision is being made for reasons other than public health,” Kanter added. “These children, even if they remain asymptomatic, will be vectors for COVID, infecting their (vaccinated or not) parents, parents’ coworkers and friends, grandparents. It’s so important that schools reopen safely.”
The procedural leniency is particularly shocking considering virtually every state in the country is scrambling to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases mostly caused by unvaccinated Americans and the Delta variant that is believed to be twice as transmissible as past iterations. Over the last week, the CDC reported that daily new cases increased over 30 percent nationwide and deaths related to the deadly virus increased by almost 35 percent. Hospitalizations increased by 40 percent.
The numbers are just as bad in the Lone Star State, where only 53 percent of residents are vaccinated. According to Johns Hopkins University, the state is currently battling a 12 percent positive rate, with more than 7,600 people currently hospitalized for COVID.
Health officials in Tarrant County—where Blackerby lives—have deemed the community spread level to be “high” as the area battles with the virus and has over 90 percent of its total hospital beds occupied. Local health officials did not respond to a request for comment.
“Our children’s hospital is getting worse by the day,” Blackerby said. “What happens when we don’t have the resources to help our children in hospitals? Then what? It’s an unbelievably scary time to be a parent right now.”
Blackerby added that many parents are also trying to keep their children safe while “dealing with a variant we know little about,” making the TEA’s latest guidance even riskier. But when Blackerby expressed this concern to her school district, Fort Worth ISD—she was simply told: Our hands are tied.
“FWISD will be doing everything legally allowed to protect students,” a trustee for Blackerby’s school district wrote in a Friday email to Blackerby reviewed by The Daily Beast. “Please reach out to your child’s principal and/or the school nurse to discuss your concerns and the safety precautions that are in place on that specific campus.”
The District 6 trustee, however, admitted that she agreed the “TEA guidelines are sparse, at best, and the Governor’s executive order is hindering the school districts’ ability to protect the health of students and staff.” The trustee and the Fort Worth ISD did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’m confused why any school isn’t listening to doctors on the front line, CDC, or science. In what world do we have education boards deciding their opinions are more heavily weighted than doctors working on children that are sick? It’s just mind-blowing,” Blackerby said.
Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina agrees, saying in a statement that the new TEA guidelines fail to relieve parental fears of sending their children back to school without the safety of vaccines or a mask mandate.
“The approach outlined in TEA’s new guidance fails to holistically address COVID-19 outbreaks at a campus level,” Molina said in a statement. “Even with the reporting requirements for positive COVID-19 cases, the new guidance comes up woefully short to help districts keep campuses, students, and employees safe.”
Blackerby said she is now among a growing group of parents who are choosing to take their children out of school and “looking for small home-school pods as a solution.” She also pointed to a petition that currently has 12,000 signatures, which demands Abbot reverse the ban on mask mandates to curb the spread of the virus.
“No child in Texas should needlessly suffer from contracting this deadly virus,” the petition reads.
Dr. Tamara Hew-Butler, an associate professor at Wayne State University and a member of the American Physiological Society, told The Daily Beast that for children under the age of 12, mask use is the best protection they have against the virus.
“Equally frightening is the possibility that even those children and adults who develop ‘mild’ symptoms from COVID-19 (vaccinated or unvaccinated) can develop the debilitating consequences of long COVID, for which there remains no cure,” she said.
“If the end goal is to prevent the spread of COVID-19, getting sick, becoming hospitalized and/or dying from COVID-19, then no, Governor Abbott’s push to make mask-wearing optional inside classrooms is not safe and only perpetuates COVID-19 spread,” Hew-Butler added.
For Blackerby, the decision to stick with the science and home-school Hazel Jane also comes with the reality that her young daughter is missing yet another pivotal year of her childhood. Among those milestone moments: celebrating her sixth birthday, which Blackerby feared might get canceled due to COVID.
“She’s very sad,” Blackerby admitted Friday. “But we make the best of what we can. Teaching her to be resilient and find happiness is important.”