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Second pandemic school year begins Thursday in Denton

Local pandemic statistics are in some cases double what they were heading into the school year compared to this past year as local students head back to class this week.

Krum ISD school opened for the 2021-22 school year Tuesday. Denton ISD will follow suit on Thursday, Argyle ISD on Monday and Sanger ISD on Thursday, Aug. 19.

The primary differences between this school year and last is that the 2020-21 year began with most students learning online, and 2021-22 will see at least a significant portion of adults and teens on each campus vaccinated.

Also different this time around, Denton County Public Health isn’t recommending school districts push back the start of their school year.

DCPH Director Matt Richardson asked local school districts during the summer of 2020 to delay the first day of classes until at least Sept. 8. That recommendation was largely unheeded in Denton County.

“I think at that point we didn’t know what would happen,” he said. “We weren’t sure what the situation was.”

On Aug. 25, 2020, just one day before Denton ISD brought students back to classes, the weekly average of new coronavirus infections was hovering just below 150 daily cases, and the number of county residents concurrently infected was 2,109.

As of Aug. 11, 2021, one day before Denton ISD schools opened, Denton County was looking at just over 378 daily cases, and 5,474 locals were concurrently infected.

At least 634 Denton County residents had died of COVID-19 by Wednesday afternoon. In 2020, the county had recorded only 98 virus deaths by Aug. 25.

By Wednesday afternoon, nearly 60% of Denton County residents 12 or older had been fully vaccinated.

DCPH is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in recommending masking for all Americans while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Denton ISD has shown no public signs of defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order barring local governments from instituting mask mandates despite impassioned calls from parents calling for universal masking, amid a groundswell of similar actions from several larger school districts.

Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson, in a text message sent earlier Wednesday morning, said the district won’t defy the governor’s order because it doesn’t have a way to enforce universal masking.

“Trying to enforce such a mandate in defiance of our governor would be virtually impossible and place our educators in an additional confrontational situation,” Wilson wrote.

He called for voluntary masking at several points during Tuesday’s regular school board meeting, but he and other district officials were adamant the district wouldn’t be able to follow other districts in the state in their disregard of the governor’s order.

“We will continue to advocate for local control in our county,” Wilson wrote, “this is just another example of how our state has removed decision making from locally elected officials.”

Assistant Superintendent Susannah O’Bara, speaking during Tuesday’s meeting, told audience members the district will continue to conduct contact tracing for coronavirus infections on its campuses even though the Texas Education Agency no longer requires districts to do so.

Denton council calls emergency meeting to discuss mask mandate

Some Denton City Council members told the Denton Record-Chronicle Wednesday that an emergency meeting scheduled for the next day to discuss mandating wearing face coverings is warranted after they say Gov. Greg Abbott is putting people’s lives at risk unnecessarily.

The emergency meeting announcement comes about a day after council members had a lengthy discussion about the possibility of a local mask mandate as the delta variant continues to drive up coronavirus infections in North Texas. Denton County Public Health confirmed another 164 coronavirus infections in Denton on Wednesday, among 530 new cases in the county.

‘Time-sensitive’ discussion

“It takes three people to call an emergency meeting,” council member Deb Armintor said Wednesday. “I was the one who raised the issue at the meeting yesterday. Plus, it takes a legit emergency. ... But I had emailed asking for one and [copied] Meltzer because he is on the agenda committee.”

Armintor said Meltzer responded saying, “This is really an emergency.”

“I’m really glad it’s happening because it’s very time-sensitive to have this discussion so we can have some form of mask mandate,” she said.

Meltzer said he agrees.

“I supported Deb’s request, and Brian [Beck] requested the emergency meeting as well,” Meltzer said. “I have also requested two other emergency meetings during COVID-19 on unemployment benefits and evictions and a mask mandate.”

“We have a serious issue we have to address,” he said. “I don’t want the next variant to be called the Denton variant.”

Hudspeth said Wednesday that he doesn’t know “what the confines are right now” to the meeting, “so I can’t add anything.”

Support for city mandate

But during their council meeting Tuesday, four members — Armintor, Alison Maguire, Beck and Meltzer — showed support for defying the governor’s order that prevents governments from requiring the wearing of masks.

“I assume this meeting is related to a mask mandate,” council member Jesse Davis said Wednesday. “I haven’t seen the agenda yet. If it is on masks, as I assume it is … I hope my fellow council members remember that the temporary restraining order that’s been issued by a judge in Dallas County is not a judgment. I feel like what I’m seeing on social media is that the governor has been shut down.”

That’s not the case, Davis said.

“That is not the legal status on things, so I am extremely hesitant to make any kind of mandate to defy the governor’s order,” he said. “I think people are getting too excited about what’s going on down in Dallas.”

But Beck said the excitement is justified.

“I generally think that the governor has made political decisions not in keeping with the safety of Texans and I agree with the judges who have put TROs against GA-38,” Beck said, referring to temporary restraining orders. “I’m looking forward to what my colleagues have to say [Thursday]. I’m a parent and have kids in schools, and we’re seeing trends in the wrong direction. We have to do the greater good, and I am for putting in some restrictions.”

Abbott’s Executive Order GA-38 orders that governments cannot require the wearing of masks, and they cannot compel COVID-19 vaccinations and disclosure of vaccinations. Governments that fail to comply with the order face fines up to $1,000.

Maguire said Wednesday she hadn’t seen the meeting agenda and could not comment immediately on it. Council member Vicki Byrd could not be reached Wednesday evening.

The Thursday emergency meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m.

Krum ISD faculty and staff welcome back students on their first day of class Tuesday as parents drop them off at Hattie Dyer Elementary School in Krum.

WHO director predicts 100 million additional coronavirus cases worldwide

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus suggested Wednesday that unless things change, the world could see 100 million more cases of COVID-19 by the early months of next year.

“At the current trajectory, we could pass 300 million cases early next year,” he said during a media briefing. “But we can change that. We are all in this together, but the world is not acting like it.”

The number of recorded COVID-19 cases had reached 200 million last week, just six months after the world passed 100 million cases, Tedros noted, “and we know that the real number of cases is much higher.”

At the briefing, WHO officials emphasized that more research was being done on treatment for COVID-19 in an unprecedented multicountry trial called Solidarity Plus, which will look at the effectiveness of three new drugs in 52 countries.

Officials also said the spread of virulent variants such as delta would change assumptions about herd immunity and vaccination targets.

“There’s no specific number or magic number that needs to be achieved. It’s really related to how transmissible the virus is,” said Katherine O’Brien, director of the WHO’s immunization department.

“What’s been happening with coronavirus ... is that as variants are emerging and are more transmissible, it does mean that a higher fraction of people need to be vaccinated to likely achieve some level of herd immunity,” O’Brien said.

With the delta variant continuing to drive up cases in the United States, some state and local officials weighed mask mandates as President Joe Biden met at the White House Wednesday with business leaders who have actively encouraged vaccinations among their workers.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, is expected Wednesday to put in place a statewide indoor mask mandate and to require vaccines for state employees, citing concerns over growing coronavirus cases due to the more transmissible delta variant.

The indoor mask mandate will make Oregon the third state — following Louisiana and Hawaii — to apply the measures to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, as bans on mask and vaccine mandates play out in a number of Republican-run states such as Texas and Florida. Washington, D.C., also requires people to wear masks inside public places, regardless of vaccination status. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, last month mandated that face coverings be worn indoors in public settings in counties with “substantial or high transmission.”

“There are two keys to saving lives,” Brown said in a statement. “Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and your family against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. And, by wearing masks, all of us — vaccinated and unvaccinated — can help ensure that a hospital bed staffed by health professionals is available for our loved ones in their time of need.”

Brown also said stricter measures would ensure the return of children to classrooms with “minimal disruptions in a few weeks” and avoid a repeat of the “darkest days of our winter surge.”

Her decision comes as schools and political leaders battle over masks elsewhere. Florida’s second-largest school system is now threatening legal action to challenge the ban on mask mandates by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and voted Tuesday to keep its own requirements in place for students and staff.

The Broward County School Board — which voted 8-1 on Tuesday to uphold its mask mandate despite DeSantis’ move to curb such restrictions and subsequent threat to stop paying superintendents and school board members who defy his orders — said in an evening news conference that it told its legal counsel to prepare a challenge.

“We feel that we took an oath to protect and serve the people of Broward County,” said Rosalind Osgood, chair of the school board. “Our decision today to make masks mandatory is our way of doing that.”

Political tensions with the federal government are heating up, too: The Biden administration is looking into whether it can direct unused stimulus funds to support educators in Florida who may defy the governor’s order against mask mandates in schools.

DeSantis recently threatened “financial consequences” for district-level officials who implement mask mandates despite his order banning them. Florida has become a national hot spot for coronavirus cases. The federal government has sent hundreds of ventilators to help Florida respond to the crisis, NBC News reported, citing officials at the Department of Health and Human Services.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki described Biden’s meeting as a “way of lifting up private-sector companies who are taking steps — through carrots and sticks, through incentives, and through mandates in some cases.”

The session included leaders of United Airlines, Kaiser Permanente, Howard University and DESA Inc., a professional services firm based in Columbia, S.C. Administration officials said they hoped to spur other companies to follow their lead in prodding employees to get vaccinated.

“I wouldn’t say it was meant to be a decision meeting, as much as a discussion about best practices,” Psaki said. “And hopefully they can be a model for others.”

Asked if Biden believes all companies should impose vaccine mandates on their workers, Psaki demurred.

“The president’s position is that every company should take a look at how to protect their workforces, and there are going to be different carrots and sticks that can be used by different private sector entities,” she said.

Also in D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, announced Tuesday that all city employees and contractors will be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing for the coronavirus, with vaccination required for new employees.

And the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, threw his weight behind vaccine mandates for teachers.

“We are in a critical situation now,” Fauci said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday when asked if teachers should be required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Acknowledging the polarization, Fauci replied, “I’m going to upset some people on this, but I think we should.”

Some schools are already following his advice. The San Francisco Unified School District announced Tuesday it would require vaccinations for all its approximately 10,000 staff, starting Sept. 7. Employees who are unvaccinated will be required to get tested weekly for the virus.

“Given that we are in the midst of rising cases and new variants in our community, a vaccine requirement is a necessary step to keeping our students, staff and families safe,” Superintendent Vincent Matthews said in a statement.

But about half of parents nationally are holding off on coronavirus vaccinations for their children, taking a wait-and-see attitude or, for many, opposing the shots outright, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Wednesday.

There was also significant opposition to schools mandating the vaccines for children ages 12 to 17 — a group now eligible for the shots under emergency Food and Drug Administration authorization. Nearly 6 in 10 parents oppose a vaccine mandate to attend in-person classes, the poll found.

After local officials defy ban on mask mandates, Gov. Abbott begins to clamp down

As Texas students too young to get vaccinated head back to school while the highly contagious delta variant threatens to overflow hospitals, a growing cadre of local government officials have mandated mask-wearing in bids to slow the spread of COVID-19 — defying Gov. Greg Abbott.

This week, officials in Dallas and Bexar counties successfully sued for the right to again require masks in public schools and many government buildings — at least temporarily. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins went a step further Wednesday and mandated that child care centers and businesses must also require employees and customers to wear masks.

“We are all team public health and the enemy is the virus,” Jenkins said. “Right now, the enemy is winning.”

Other officials didn’t bother with a court battle. Travis County officials went ahead Wednesday afternoon with an order requiring mask-wearing in public schools. Some of the state’s largest school districts — Austin, Houston and Fort Worth — already plan to require students, teachers and staff to don masks.

“The rebellion is spreading across the state,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Abbott — under intense pressure from some on his right to hold the line against local officials who want to require masks — now is trying to quell that rebellion.

Hours after Jenkins signed his mandate, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton announced they would go to court to block Dallas County’s top official — asking the 5th Court of Appeals to overturn the state district judge’s decision that allowed Jenkins to move forward. The two men threatened to sue any government official who defies Abbott’s order.

“The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates,” Abbott said in a statement.

Speaking to Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, Paxton predicted the Texas Supreme Court would hear the case by the end of the week.

“If we have local officials who just defy law because they feel like they know better, then we end up with little dictators all over the state and we don’t have any rule of law and we lose our representative government that we vote for,” Paxton told Hasty.

To some local officials, they have little choice but to try and reclaim the authority to enact measures like mask mandates — powers Abbott took away — in the face of skyrocketing COVID-19 hospitalizations and a shortage of nurses to treat the ill. Rarely willing to run afoul of Abbott earlier in the pandemic, the heads of cities, counties and school districts now risk his ire and drawn-out legal battles.

Jenkins said mandating masks is an attempt to give some relief to hospitals, but the best way to do that is for more people to get vaccinated.

“We’re trying to buy our hospitals some time by doing everything that we all can do to get through this,” Jenkins said.

To hard-right conservatives, Abbott had done little until Wednesday to beat back the tide of locals contesting his authority.

For some comparison, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has vowed to punish school districts that require masks by pulling their funding — a measure Paxton said earlier Wednesday could be done in Texas.

One of Abbott’s primary challengers, Don Huffines, called on the governor to “stop surrendering to local mask tyrants.”

“While Greg Abbott brags about banning mask mandates in Texas, the largest and most populous counties in the state are imposing them on citizens,” said Huffines, a former Dallas state senator, adding that “it is past time” for Abbott and the Legislature to override the local requirements and “impose real consequences.”

Matt Rinaldi, the new chairman of the Texas GOP, tweeted Tuesday night that Abbott should add the issue of rogue local leaders to the list of items state lawmakers should take up during the current special session.

Abbott also could face pressure from the White House. President Joe Biden floated the possibility Wednesday of intervening in states where governors ban mask mandates.

In the meantime, the rush by local officials to once more require mask wearing has resulted in a patchwork of mandates across the state. As of midnight Wednesday, people in Dallas will have to wear masks to go grocery shopping or eat at a restaurant. Not so four hours south in San Antonio.

In Bexar County, most school districts seemed willing to abide by the local health authority’s order requiring masks in schools, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

But some are holding out. Most of Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD’s schools are in a neighboring county. As a result, officials there have decided to keep masks optional, Superintendent Clark C. Ealy said Wednesday.

Also holding out is Northside ISD, the county’s largest school district — a move Superintendent Brian Woods took to “avoid flip flopping from day to day” as the county’s legal fight against Abbott continues.

“There is still much legal and political wrangling to come,” Woods told district employees in an email.

School districts in Bexar that don’t comply with the health authority’s order are unlikely to face punishment for doing so. San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said Wednesday he has no plans to go after the two school districts.

“Unfortunately, not complying with this mask mandate only increases the possibility that those in their care could be infected with the virus when it’s clear we know it can be avoided,” Segovia said.

Wolff agrees that’s the right approach.

“The only real enforcement tool, quite frankly, is the school districts,” Wolff said. “If they choose not to do it, well, what are you going to do? Send a policeman out to every classroom? I don’t think so.”

But school districts flout the order with risk, he said.

“They’re endangering their kids, I’ll say that,” Wolff said.