This story has been updated.
Staff and students in area public schools will be required to wear masks starting on Wednesday, according to a new local health directive.
Applying to all Bexar County public schools from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, the directive was issued hours after a Bexar County district judge granted a temporary restraining order on Tuesday allowing the city and county to require masks in city- and county-owned buildings and in schools. The temporary restraining order blocked a statewide prohibition on mask mandates.
“The local public health authority issues health directives for [emergency purposes], and that authority has been restored by the ruling today,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Metro Health’s order, filed by Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo, directs all students, staff, and visitors ages 2 and older to wear masks while indoors.
The order also requires schools to inform students’ parents or guardians when students have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Unvaccinated people must quarantine for 14 days after coming in close contact with a coronavirus-positive individual.
School districts respond
Harlandale Independent School District Superintendent Gerardo Soto said that the district would require all students, staff, and visitors to wear face masks at school facilities, regardless of vaccination status.
“I believe that the community and our board of trustees are supportive of our decision to follow this order because our priority is the safety and well-being of our students and staff,” Soto said. “We want our students, staff, and families to feel safe as we begin our new school year, and this is a positive step towards achieving that goal. We will continue to follow all guidelines to ensure the safety of our Harlandale ISD community.”
Currently, only the San Antonio, Edgewood, and South San Antonio school districts are back in school, as well as Converse Elementary School in Judson ISD and Castle Hills Elementary in North East ISD. Most school districts begin school either on Monday or Aug. 23, including Northside ISD.
SAISD said that it would begin requiring students and staff to wear masks while at school starting Wednesday.
“Earlier today, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County were granted the authority to issue a mask mandate by the courts, which now requires local school districts to follow the local mandate instead of the state’s executive order,” SAISD spokeswoman Laura Short said in an email.
“We stand by our local leaders who continue to prioritize the safety of our community based on the expertise of health professionals and the CDC.”
Northeast ISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor was more succinct: “We will comply with the health directive.”
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the mask mandate will only impact a small percentage of students and staff. The district asked families to fill out a form if they did not want their students to wear masks in school, and most staff members have continued to wear masks, regardless of a mandate.
The primary concern for Martinez is whether other school districts will follow the order. He said it’s important for schools to “follow the science,” considering how contagious the delta variant is among children who aren’t old enough to get vaccinated.
“With all these procedures, they only work if we all follow them,” he said.
‘Children are vulnerable’
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he was confident that the school districts would be able to ensure that students and staff adhered to the new mandate.
“There’s plenty of enforcement tools for the superintendents and principals to enforce it,” he said. “All they have to simply say [is], ‘Your child is not going to be able to stay in school if he doesn’t have a mask on.’ If the teacher shows up without one they have to put it on. They have all the enforcement tools that they need to individually do it.”
Wolff joined Nirenberg, Metro Health Director Claude Jacob, City Attorney Andy Segovia, and District Attorney Joe Gonzales Tuesday for the first televised coronavirus briefing since they ended on June 3. Briefings are now scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“We did think we were done with these, but as you know, the delta surge is very serious and we want to give you updates on what is happening in our community,” Nirenberg said.
As of Tuesday, the county’s positivity rate was 21.4%, with 1,914 new cases and a seven-day moving average of 1,353. Area hospitals reported 1,242 patients, 189 of them new admissions in the past 24 hours, Nirenberg said. Among those patients, 314 are intensive care and 193 are on ventilators. Nearly 90% of those hospitalized are unvaccinated. The county also reported two new deaths.
The rising number of pediatric COVID-19 cases makes the new mask orders even more essential, Wolff said.
“We’re taking steps to protect our schoolchildren; they’re vulnerable,” he said. “In the last month or so, the number of children going to hospitals has doubled across the nation. We have one 11-month-old baby in [University Hospital] with COVID. So children are at great risk.”
Parents should plan to send their children to schools in face masks starting Wednesday, Nirenberg said.
“We know what the CDC says: that students and people who are unvaccinated need to be going back to school in masks,” Nirenberg said. “And so regardless, plan to be back in masks and we’re going to enforce that order, put it in place, and we hope that the judge continues to see, as we have, that it’s important for us to protect our schools and protect our kids.”
Employees and visitors at city- and county-owned facilities will also have to wear face masks starting Wednesday. Wolff issued a new executive order Tuesday, while City Manager Erik Walsh sent a memo to city staff informing them that masks are required while indoors.
“Here on our team, an average of 33 employees have reported a positive COVID-19 test each day since July, and six of our coworkers are currently hospitalized battling COVID-19,” Walsh wrote. “Please keep these individuals and their families in your thoughts as we hope for their full and speedy recovery. We must take proactive measures now, and I am asking for your commitment to help curb the spread of COVID-19 within our community.”
Similar to a program approved by county commissioners earlier Tuesday, Walsh also implemented a vaccine incentive program that pays city employees who get vaccinated. People who receive their first dose prior to Aug. 31 can get $300. That incentive goes down to $200 for people who get their first dose before Sept. 30, and $100 before Oct. 31.
Fully vaccinated city employees will also have paid leave if they need to quarantine after developing COVID-19 symptoms or coming in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Unvaccinated employees who did not receive their first dose by Sept. 1 will have to dip into their own leave days and cannot work remotely.