Our Op-ed: State Must Do Its Part to Keep Schools Open

This commentary by Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

Texas kids have barely ripped the price tags off their new school supplies and already school districts from Fort Bend ISD to Morgan Mill ISD to Hughes Springs ISD have closed their campuses because of COVID outbreaks.

As more outbreaks occur in the coming weeks, sending students and staff home will continue to be the right thing to do. While most children who get COVID will have mild cases and recover, some will get very sick with potential long-term health consequences and hospitals will overflow.

And these tragedies will mount until we contain the virus.


When kids miss out on in-person learning this year — because schools close, anxious parents sign up for virtual learning or students have to quarantine — there are real consequences for children and families.

Think about the children who lost the last months of prekindergarten to COVID in spring 2020. They then went through a year of kindergarten that was largely virtual — not a developmentally appropriate option for a 5-year-old. Now that they’re in first grade, they should be in class building vocabulary, developing math skills and catching up on everything else they’ve missed.

For emergent bilingual students, in-person conversations with classmates and effective teachers are particularly important.

While schools worked heroically to provide virtual learning last year, that isn’t even an option now for many students sent home because of a COVID exposure or outbreak. Even where virtual learning is available, it’s a recipe for widening educational gaps and increasing family stress as many working parents struggle to keep their jobs and also supervise their virtual learners.

Of course, the academic impact of missing face-to-face learning is only part of the story. Getting kids back in school is also critical to their mental health and social emotional development. The isolation of the pandemic has been devastating. Students need to spend time with friends, develop skills for managing conflicts, and lean on the support of counselors, teachers, coaches and others.

To ensure more kids are in school this year, school districts need every available tool in the toolbox, including outdoor classrooms and lunch tables, good ventilation, ample COVID testing, strong vaccination policies for staff and students — like the ones for measles and other diseases — and mask mandates.

The nation’s pediatricians — along with other experts — have called for all students and staff to wear masks at school, unless prohibited by a medical or developmental condition. They have made clear that putting a mask on your child isn’t just about protecting her. It’s also about keeping her school open and protecting her classmates, her classmates’ families and the school staff.

It’s especially important to protect children younger than 12 since they aren’t eligible for the vaccine yet. Given how contagious the delta variant is, mask mandates are a much more effective strategy for keeping schools open than “opt in” policies in which mask-wearing is optional.

My 10-year-old son understands why he needs to wear a mask at school. He wants to be in class. He wants his friends and teachers to stay healthy. He knows wearing a mask is the one thing he can do to help us get through this pandemic, at least until he is eligible for the vaccine. He can’t believe adults are even arguing about it.

Kudos to the school districts that have implemented mask mandates despite threats from state leaders and taken other steps to limit outbreaks. And thank you to individual Texans who are getting vaccinated, masking up, and using this moment to teach kids how their actions affect others and what it means to be a good friend, neighbor and leader.

However, school districts and individual Texans can’t do this on their own. We need our state policymakers to lead — instead of standing in the way — as we try to fight the virus and keep our school doors open.

At the end of the day, we have to do more to protect kids than just “opt in.” We need to be “all in.” That’s going to take our state leaders and each one of us doing our part.