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Community debates value of Longview ISD mask mandate as COVID-19 cases fall

COVID-19 cases have fallen by two-thirds since the mask policy was enacted, but parents have mixed opinions about its value.

LONGVIEW, Texas — COVID-19 cases are going down in East Texas, but masks must remain up in Longview ISD schools. How and when to change that policy was the subject of debate among community members Monday night.

The district’s mask policy was the primary topic of discussion during the public comment portion of the district’s board meeting. “I do not understand,” one man said, exasperated, “why we decided to break the law to enforce mask mandates.”

Superintendent James Wilcox explained when the mask rule was enacted in August that Longview ISD felt a responsibility to prevent COVID-19 cases. It followed a few other districts that defied an executive order by Governor Greg Abbott banning mask requirements. Since then, the number of active cases in the district has fallen by nearly 70%.

“You took a good look at the local situation,” Stephen Fierbaugh told the board members, “and took decisive leadership to protect children and staff.

Fierbaugh said he calculated that Longview ISD prevented 128 cases because it asked everyone to mask up based on a comparison of data from other districts. But a handful of parents waited outside the school board’s meeting room, their visible, maskless faces a visible sign of their frustration with the district’s policy.

RELATED: Chapel Hill ISD credits mask mandate for significant decrease in COVID-19 cases

“I’m not here tonight to make threats or belittle or berate anyone,” Jessica Lowery stated, “just simply to state facts and reclaim restitution of our children’s liberties.”

Lowery argued that the pieces of fabric meant to keep students and teachers safe were harming them at the same time. She talked about students developing skin problems and breathing problems due to consistent mask usage. She said it is harder for students with hearing loss or learning disabilities to understand their teacher while they wear a mask. She also said masks prevents them from learning, “the social aspects of reading people’s, their emotions, or that personable… they’ve lost that.”

RELATED: Fact-checking misinformation after CDC updates mask guidance for COVID-19

The board took no action Monday night. It could choose to end the mask mandate as cases fall and vaccinations rise, or it could wait for policymakers and doctors to deem it unnecessary. But the sharing of opinions, it seems, will continue.

“I want to celebrate that,” Dr. Stephanie Grogan said, “encourage other parents to help us find good solutions with great mannerisms and great positive energy.”

A Gregg County judge will hold a hearing Wednesday in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit against Longview ISD, and the judge could order a temporarily stop to the mask policy while the case proceeds.