The San Antonio Independent School District rescinded its mask mandate effective immediately during Monday’s school board meeting after a three-hour closed session, making it the last district in the area to remove the order.

Along with rescinding the requirement, trustees encouraged the continued use of masks by all staff, students and visitors at all schools and facilities. 

Trustees also authorized the superintendent to monitor and adjust the mask-wearing mandate with guidance from the local public health authority. 

The motion was made by trustee Art Valdez. Five trustees voted for the removal of the mask mandate, as one trustee, Sarah Sorensen, voted against. Trustee Pattie Radle did not vote.

In a COVID-19 update to the board hours before trustees voted, Toni Thompson, associate superintendent of Human Capital Management who oversees the district’s coronavirus protocols, said the district had over 8,200 total positive cases in January, and nearly 2,000 positive cases in February.

She emphasized there has been a “sharp, sharp, sharp decline in positive cases,” both in staff and students recently. Thompson also reported that the weekly positivity rate in the district is .038%. 

“We’re in a much better position than we’ve been in, with respect to this virus, in a long, long time, if not almost ever,” said Thompson. 

Thompson reiterated CDC guidelines to support data gathered from COVID-19 testing at SAISD schools in her update to the board. 

“It’s not just about masking indoors, it’s about maximizing other safety protocols,” said Thompson. A low indicates that, based on the science, you really don’t have to mask while you’re indoors. They’re even saying now that you don’t even have to contact trace for all cases if you’re in the low risk category.”

To make the decision on whether or not to rescind the mask mandate, SAISD surveyed staff and families to determine whether or not to lift the mandate. According to Thompson, the survey was posted on the district’s website for the community to respond and was emailed to parents to participate in. 

The survey asked parents, educators, students and community members if they would be comfortable with the district removing the mask mandate now; if they prefer the district to monitor conditions over the next couple of weeks; or if they prefer for the district to continue its mask mandate for the remainder of the school year. 

Thompson said the survey was open during a one-week period and received 8,700 responses.

“There was a little bit greater interest with parents for the mask mandates to continue through the end of the school year,” she said. 

Across the rest of the groups, results were even, from 42% to 45% that favored discontinuing the mask mandate now. By employee type, percentages were evenly distributed and largely supported removing the mask mandate now, as opposed to waiting. Other campus staff and substitute teachers were among the groups that voted for the district to continue its mask mandate for the rest of the school year. 

About 45% of students said they were comfortable with the district removing the mask mandate, while 36% said they preferred to keep the covid guideline for the rest of the school year. 

Board Vice President Alicia Sebastian, who is also mother to students across three different campuses at SAISD, said she never received an email requesting to participate in the survey. 

Thompson clarified the survey was located in “The Superintendent’s Letter,” which was sent March 14. 

“I don’t know if there’s another way we can elevate these surveys to a level of importance, where they can feel like it’s necessary to click,” said Sebastian. “It’s hard for me to land and say I’m comfortable with this, knowing that’s only a percentage of a fraction of the responses from our community.”

This discussion, along with several questions from board members about the difference of the CDC’s risk level scale and Bexar County’s risk level, and questions as to why the district is following CDC guidance and not Metro Health’s, sparked a three-hour closed session to continue the discussion before trustees made a final decision on the mask mandate. 

Before breaking for closed session, Thompson recommended rescinding the mask mandate under certain conditions, including continuing to offer masks to those who request them, continuing needs for mask wearing and other precautions based on data and community spread levels, and to encourage employees who would like to wear a mask to do so. 

Thompson said the district would “do no less than” putting the mask mandate back into effect should coronavirus spikes occur. She added the district would continue to follow other safety protocols, including social distancing and sanitizing. 

“We’re not in any way compromising safety,” said Thompson. “We just feel that, if there’s a time to do it, it would be now, and if there’s a time we shouldn’t do it, we’ll be back because safety will always remain first and foremost in our minds.”

Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.