The superintendents for the Bryan and College Station school districts said Monday that masks are being strongly encouraged for students and staff in both districts as a precaution against COVID-19.
Both school districts saw an increase in cases of the virus throughout the first week of school, followed by a jump over the weekend.
In Bryan, the district started the year Aug. 17 with 17 reported cases — 14 among staff members and three among students. On Friday, the district’s online dashboard showed 34 cases — 20 staff member cases and 14 student cases. On Monday, the district reported 52 total cases — 17 among staff members and 35 among students.
The College Station school district reported two cases, both staff members, on the first day of school. On Friday, the district’s dashboard reported 33 cases: 12 staff members and 21 students. Of those, one was listed as recovered. On Monday, the district reported 86 total cases since Aug. 17: 27 staff cases and 59 student cases; two cases were considered recovered.
Both districts showed a near-even split between student cases in elementary and intermediate schools compared to middle school and high school campuses.
The case numbers are higher than at this time last year, Brazos County Health Authority Dr. Seth Sullivan said during an afternoon press conference, noting there were more mitigating factors in place last year, including mask requirements in both districts and a more efficient contact tracing system.
Acknowledging the increase in numbers, College Station ISD Superintendent Mike Martindale said district administrators are encouraging everyone to wear masks in district facilities.
Martindale said the district would continue to follow Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates, “but we still encourage folks to mask to help us manage these numbers so we can keep folks in schools and keep our classrooms open.”
In Bryan schools, Superintendent Christie Whitbeck said, mask use ranges from 25% to 50%, with principals and school leaders setting the example.
Whitbeck said she wants to encourage staff members to model mask-wearing because it is “paramount” to student success to keep schools open to meet students’ academic, social and emotional needs.
With the delta variant more transmissible than previous variants, Sullivan said masks are most effective when worn properly by everyone.
He said the vaccine reduces the risk of infection threefold, symptomatic infection eightfold, and hospitalization rates by 25 times. There have been infections among vaccinated people in the county, he said, but the vaccine is effective at preventing severe disease. None of the deaths reported in the county have been among vaccinated individuals, he said.
The vaccination rate for the youngest people eligible for the vaccine, which received full FDA approval Monday, remains below 20%, he said.
Martindale and Whitbeck said staff members clean buses and high-touch surfaces throughout the day and classrooms each night. The districts use a disinfecting fog on campuses twice a week.
Whitbeck said a classroom will be emptied and disinfected immediately if there is a confirmed positive COVID-19 case in the classroom during the school day.
As of Monday, neither district had thresholds in place for a number of positive cases that would lead to the closure of a class, a campus or the district. Both said any closure would likely result from a lack of staff.
“Obviously, our goal is to have schools open,” Martindale said. “Our approach is that as long as we can staff our facilities accordingly, then schools will be open.”
Whitbeck said in other districts that started the school year before Bryan or College Station, most classroom closures have come from the lack of staff.
“That is where the rubber will meet the road,” she said. “There’s only so many substitutes in Brazos Valley, so this is why we really do want to encourage the masks at this time because we know that closure will most likely be due to an adult not being able to be in the classroom.”
Neither Martindale nor Whitbeck said their district or school boards are discussing making masks part of the dress code as some other school districts in the state have done.
“The idea of using the mask mandate as a part of dress code appears on the surface to be clever, but in our conversations with our outside legal team as late as 8 o’clock this morning, that is not an option,” Whitbeck said.