This article has been updated.

The North East Independent School District board of trustees voted 5-1 late Thursday night to temporarily mandate masks for all students, staff, and visitors. The decision capped a six-hour meeting in which more than 100 parents voiced their opinions on the matter.

District 6 trustee Steve Hilliard cast the lone dissenting vote. Board President Shannon Grona was absent from the emergency meeting.

The temporary mask mandate will go into effect Monday, a week after NEISD started school. It will last for up to six weeks, but the board will reevaluate the need for a mask mandate when it meets again in a month, Superintendent Sean Maika said.

Additionally, Maika will have the authority to adjust the mandate, restricting the mask requirement to certain campuses or classrooms where COVID-19 is spreading.

New coronavirus cases and hospitalizations began spiking last month in San Antonio, driven by the highly contagious delta variant, and pediatric specialists report seeing more children develop serious illness.

Mostly unmasked people filled the NEISD boardroom and two overflow rooms. While 151 people signed up to speak at the meeting, as the evening wore on many left before it was their turn to address the board.

Most who spoke favored keeping masks optional. Officers escorted at least two people from the boardroom who refused to stop talking when their one-minute time limit ended; both opposed the mask mandate.

Before the meeting, the board also received about 900 emails about the issue, with 67% favoring a mask requirement.

North East, Southwest, and Judson ISDs became the latest Bexar County school districts to issue mask mandates Thursday. Somerset ISD announced Friday it also will require masks. The Northside ISD school board voted Tuesday to mandate masks, beginning Monday when school starts. San Antonio ISD issued a mask mandate and a vaccine requirement for staff earlier this week.

The Southwest, Judson, and Somerset school districts’ temporary mask mandates for all students, staff, and visitors inside school facilities and on school buses also take effect Monday. Southwest and Somerset ISDs start school that day, while Judson ISD began Aug. 16.

“This action will increase the probability of keeping our schools open longer, and when we do have positive cases, it will minimize the number of students who will need to be quarantined,” Southwest Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft wrote in a letter to families. “Our calling is to safely get our students back into the classroom and back on track for their future aspirations. By providing this layer of safety, we feel we will deter widespread outbreaks in our facilities.”

At the NEISD board meeting, several parents threatened to pull their students from the district if the board approved a mask mandate. Some threatened legal action. Others who spoke against requiring masks to be worn inside school facilities spoke of what they called the harmful effects of wearing masks — claims that have been debunked by scientists and medical experts. Others insisted on a “freedom of choice” for their children.

Bill Librera, a parent, said the school district was “considering playing ping pong with our parental rights” as several lawsuits challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s authority to prevent governmental entities from mandating masks wind their way through the court system. Librera also claimed that NEISD wants to turn away students who show up to school without wearing masks.

Students who show up to school without a mask will be offered one. If they refuse to wear it, they will be sent to a separate area and their parents will be called, NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said. Parents can pick up their students, but those who refuse to wear masks won’t be able to attend any classes. They will be given their work while they remain separated from other students.

“We will use this same procedure for two more days after that,” Chancellor said. “If on the fourth day the same situation takes place, the parent will be required to pick up the child due to a one-day suspension.”

Somerset ISD will follow a similar approach. Students who go to school without a mask will be provided one, and staff will monitor students to make sure masks are worn properly, district spokeswoman Natalie Martinez said. Students who refuse to wear masks may be sent home.

“We are counting on our community to work together to help provide a safe learning environment for everyone,” she said.

School districts have been caught in a legal tug-of-war between state and local governments over the issue of mandating masks. The City of San Antonio and Bexar County sued Abbott on Aug. 10 over his July executive order barring public entities, such as school districts, from mandating masks. A Bexar County district judge granted the city and county a temporary restraining order last week, allowing mask mandates in city and county buildings and in schools.

The Texas Supreme Court blocked the order Sunday, suspending mask mandates, but Bexar County District Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga granted a temporary injunction to permit the mask mandates again, including in public pre-K through 12th grade schools. The 4th Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Arteaga’s order still stands, after Abbott appealed the temporary injunction.

Several speakers who supported the mask mandate have children who attend Castle Hills Elementary, NEISD’s year-round school, and who are not old enough to get vaccinated. The campus has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases among students since classes began in late July.

Carolyn Greenfield, whose children aren’t old enough to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, said it was the board’s duty to protect the health and safety of students.

“Individual rights sometimes yield to the public good,” she said, referring to many speakers’ claims that mask mandates violate their freedom. “You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”

NEISD school nurse Bethany Adrian spoke against the mask mandate, calling it illogical and “ignorant.”

“We have responded with fear to what’s going on in our community for far too long. Masking children is in direct opposition to the data,” she said, referring to the low number of children who die from COVID-19 complications. “We have collectively taught our children that every human interaction poses a threat to their health and safety. That is toxic.”

Many people in one of the overflow rooms cheered Adrian and others who spoke against the mask mandate. They openly disputed and scoffed at the data presented by Emma Kelly, assistant director of health services, who said masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and that the delta variant is much more contagious than the original strain of the virus. Kelly recommended the mask mandate.

After the speakers concluded, Maika told the board that he and other administrators watched the number of COVID-19 cases in NEISD schools rise over the past few weeks. They saw few people test positive during the summer, when masks were optional, but then suddenly more students and staff members began getting sick. He repeatedly said the delta variant is different and requires a mask mandate to help limit the spread of the virus in schools.

“If it were up to me, I would have already implemented this several days ago,” Maika said.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.