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Education

Dallas ISD Superintendent On Mask Compliance: 'We're Gonna Be Firm'

DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa speaks at a lectern.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa says masks are his only option for keeping schools safe.

Dallas ISD is still requiring students and teachers to wear masks at its campuses, despite the Texas Supreme Court’s recent siding with Gov. Greg Abbott.

Wednesday on Think, Krys Boyd talked with DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa about mask mandates, learning loss and the social-emotional well-being of students. For the full conversation, visit the Think website:

Krys Boyd: If the legislature were to pass a law banning mask mandates, which is different than the governor issuing an executive order, would you feel more compelled to comply with that ban on mandates?

Michael Hinojosa: Absolutely. I have to follow the rule of law, but then I might still challenge it. To protect my students, I only had three options. Masks was one of them. The second one was vaccines. Well, I couldn't do vaccines, because exactly what you said: They passed a law saying you couldn't ask people. I can't even ask who's vaccinated. So since then, I've started an opportunity where we'll pay employees $500 if they prove they're vaccinated. That way, it's voluntary and at least we would have an idea. There's no law that we could have virtual school. The commissioner has not declared this an emergency, so we can't have virtual school. So in my mind, the only way I could protect the students was to take a risk by having the mask mandate.

KB: What happens to students who show up at school in DISD not wearing a mask?

MH: We know this is an emotional issue for everyone, but we're going to be firm. And I'm so proud of everybody, teachers and students, because everybody is compliant. Now, we've had on day one, we had two students at Skyline and one student at Dealey that didn't want to comply. We gave them a mask. They wouldn't put it on. We asked them to leave. They wouldn't leave. So we set up a separate instructional arrangement, and we have a substitute teacher assigned to those students. And they're learning there on the campus, but they're not mixing with the rest of the students.

KB: What is DISD doing about contact tracing? Will parents get notice if their children have been in proximity to somebody who has tested positive for COVID?

MH: We got a notice from the Texas Education Agency that we did not have to contact trace. We can, but we don't have to. And I said, “Oh my goodness, yes, we're going to do it.” We're going to notify, we're going to contact trace. We're going to notify people. We have to be that transparent. And I was surprised at how many districts are not doing it, because they don't have to do it. But we made that decision immediately. There was no debate. That was a unanimous decision that, yes, we will contact trace. People need to know what's going on.

KB: Will you send students home if they've been exposed but haven't shown signs of illness yet?

MH: Yes. And ironically, that's the only way we will get money from the state for those students, if they actually get it and we send them home -- with all this technology, all these devices, all these computers, and then we can instruct them and we will get money for those students. But only if you're sick will we get money.

KB: Lots of DISD students went virtual last year, but there were plenty attending classes on campus. I'm curious about the biggest lessons you learned last year about what did work to control the spread of infection and what seemed like a good idea but made no difference.

MH: We had Plexiglas, and we washed everything down multiple times a day. As it turns out, you know, the variant – it’s very clear how it's passed from one to another. So that's why the masks have become the most prominent. We still need to clean surfaces, but there's no evidence that the surfaces actually are the ones that transmit it. But that's why we kept the Plexiglas, so we can separate the students so their particles aren't airborne. So, we've learned a lot over this last year, and that's why we took this pretty bold, aggressive stance that, if we're going to be in person -- which we agree with -- then we've got to be protected.

KB: It has been a little bit confusing to follow all these court battles over mask mandates in Texas. What would you say are the most relevant decisions so far in terms of giving DISD express legal consent to require masking or keeping DISD effectively in violation of the governor's order?

MH: Krys, unfortunately, it's going to get more confusing before it gets clearer, but I think in another week or so we'll have a clear path of where there's going to be some kind of a final decision that will very clearly impact everybody.