When Ana Romo dropped her fourth-grader off at Woodridge Elementary School on Monday, she saw many students not wearing masks on their first day of the new school year.

For Romo and other members of the recently formed Alamo Heights Community Alliance, that sight and what they call a lack of leadership from the Alamo Heights Independent School District board in not requiring masks is disappointing. A petition requesting the school board implement a mask mandate and other safety measures has more than 300 signatures, Romo said.

“We understand the school board is in a difficult position,” she said. “But we wanted them to know that parents were very concerned and that parents expected the school board to take their responsibility of protecting our kids seriously, regardless of what mandate is actually in place at any given moment.”

The issue of whether to require students, staff, and visitors on school property to mask up has reached a fever pitch in the past week, after the City of San Antonio and Bexar County sued Gov. Greg Abbott on Aug. 10 over his July executive order, barring public entities, such as school districts, from mandating masks.

The legal battle has bounced back and forth since then, with a Bexar County judge granting a temporary restraining order last week, allowing mask mandates in government buildings and public schools. On Sunday, the Texas Supreme Court blocked the order, suspending the mask mandates.

Then Monday, 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 injunction came after school districts, some of which had not yet started classes, sent out a slew of messages the night before, informing families and staff that masks were optional.

Some districts reversed course after Arteaga’s Monday ruling and required masks again; others have since imposed their own mask mandates, such as San Antonio and Northside ISDs.

The Alamo Heights ISD board stopped short of a mandate, voting Tuesday “to strongly recommend mask wearing in our district and to closely monitor campus case rates in order to respond accordingly.” The board meets again Saturday to “consider and take possible action regarding COVID-19 safety protocols.” The meeting starts at 8 a.m. in the Alamo Heights High School Auditorium, located at 6900 Broadway.

Romo said she was disappointed the board did not change its position on masks or other COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as having kids eat lunch outside and providing virtual learning.

“Other districts in Bexar County are making changes to keep schools open and kids safe,” she said. “We’re frustrated at having to bounce back and forth between these different rulings, but that’s exactly why we want some consistency from the school district so that we won’t be at the mercy of some of these disputes.”

At least two San Antonio-area school districts — Harlandale and Southside — have adopted resolutions calling on Abbott to grant school boards the authority to decide whether masks should be required on campuses and allow Education Commissioner Mike Morath the ability to fully fund virtual instruction for students, which the state did last school year. The resolutions note that both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend everyone in school buildings wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, because of how contagious the delta variant of COVID-19 has proven to be.

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District has reiterated the recommendation. Public Health Authority Dr. Junda Woo issued the directive mandating masks in public schools, but she said she understands the “tough place” schools are in legally because of Abbott’s executive order and “threatening letters” some school districts have received from the state Attorney General’s Office.

“The choice is between helping to stop this pandemic or expediency,” Woo said at a Tuesday press conference. “I think most of the schools are ‘strongly recommending,’ and I understand why they are in that position. And I don’t know that it’s going to be enough, but we’ll find out.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton posted a list of governmental entities “who have been reported as noncompliant” with the governor’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates. The list cites more than 50 school districts, including San Antonio, North East, Lackland, Judson, Harlandale, Edgewood, and Fort Sam Houston ISDs.

Meanwhile, school districts are left in the middle, trying to navigate a new school year with fewer tools available to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and maintaining consistent and clear communication with families and staff.

South San Antonio ISD sent messages to families Tuesday, explaining that the district would return to mandatory mask-wearing because of “this ongoing legal tug-of-war.”

“We understand that this has been frustrating for our parents and our staff, but let’s continue to keep our culture of compassionate care and safety at the forefront of everything we do for students and staff,” Superintendent Marc Puig wrote in the letter. “We have always encouraged mask wearing and appreciate everyone’s patience while the courts decree mandates back and forth.”

East Central ISD held its first day of school Monday and saw most students wearing masks, despite the confusion over whether they are required, district spokesman Brandon Oliver said. The district has increased communication efforts, such as virtual town halls and text messages, in the past week to help families understand what’s happening and to get their feedback.

“The flip-flopping of mandates has been a very confusing and frustrating process for both parents and the district. We know that the legal issues between state and local agencies are going to continue,” Oliver said. “We are a tight-knit community where we all want the same outcome — the health and well-being of our kids. And we feel that our communication channels are working effectively, especially during times of high sensitivity.”

Brooke Crum

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