The Texas Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates means the state has officially told public schools to start the 2021-2022 school year as if the COVID-19 pandemic never happened. More correctly, as if it was still not happening. Others have already pointed to the health risks posed by not having a mask mandate in place at schools, and schools around the Houston area have already had to close because of outbreaks. But beyond the dangers posed to the health of students, staff, and families, the state’s approach is undermining schools’ ability to accelerate students’ learning and close gaps created and compounded over the past 18 months.

COVID-19 and schooling

COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges since the shift to 100% virtual instruction in March 2020. Schools developed new curriculum, innovated instructional strategies, engaged with students in a variety of new ways, and confronted persistent and growing inequalities that have continued to infringe on students’ opportunities to learn. To assist in COVID-19 recovery efforts, the Texas Education Agency has received more than $17.5 billion, and around $5.5 billion has been released to districts in the past two months. Individual districts in the Houston area have received well over $100 million in some cases, and more than $1 billion in funds have come into the area in total. These funds provide incredible opportunities for schools and districts to employ new programs, interventions, and supports, particularly for students who have faced historic and persistent disadvantages in order to close gaps and accelerate the learning of all students.

Yet each and every single one of these efforts – both locally in Houston and across the state – as well as the billions of dollars in taxpayer money behind them will be wasted if students are not able to receive instruction.

Facing Delta unmasked

The ban on local mask mandates has forced districts into the position of having to choose between defiance in the name of public health or compliance. We know from last school year, the share of infections among school-aged children rose while school was in session (see chart below) and contributed to more total cases and deaths in the Houston area. With the more contagious Delta variant, we can only expect an even more severe spread.

Several large districts, including Houston ISD, Dallas ISD and Austin ISD, attempted to prioritize student and staff health by issuing mask mandates. Other districts, including Cypress-Fairbanks, Spring Branch, and Alief in the Houston area, are operating within the letter of the law but are still encouraging members of their communities to protect themselves and each other by wearing masks. Alief ISD, which has been back in school for three weeks, has been particularly clear and consistent about its expectation that even without a mandate, staff and students should wear masks. Early reports from the district suggest students and staff are masking up, and though it is yet to be seen how effective a culture of mask wearing will be in curbing the spread of COVID-19, this approach also appears to be one of the only remaining avenues districts have left for protecting students against the unchecked spread of the virus.

Now what?

Parents, families, and the general public will not have to wait long to see how effective early strategies are at mitigating the spread of COVID in schools. The Texas Public Schools COVID-19 Data dashboard will provide weekly updates of student and staff cases. Hopefully, data will show that an appropriate public-health conscious culture on campuses can minimize the spread of COVID-19. Of course, relying on hope to get students through the school year seems silly in comparison to letting the science guide policies and decisions, and yet that is where we find ourselves. And the science is already pretty clear from other parts of the country what COVID-19 can and will do in the absence of mask mandates and a culture of mask wearing.

Gov. Abbott would go a long way toward protecting kids and making sure the billions of dollars in education investments don’t go to waste if he amended his directives to allow mask mandates in schools – particularly in elementary schools where many students are still ineligible to receive the vaccine. Though there’s been no indication from Abbott or TEA of any intention to do something, if either are looking for evidence the state’s most recent numbers for positive COVID cases among students and staff is a good place to start.

No matter how much families value education, for some the risk posed by COVID-19 is too great and the precautions being taken are too little for them to trust putting their children back in schools, setting up 2021-2022 to be another school year of setbacks rather than accelerated progress.

We know that young children who miss out on pre-kindergarten are much less likely to be ready for school, and enrollment in pre-k was down more than 20% last school year in Texas. Without more serious consideration of public health and safety, it is very likely enrollment in these important early grades will continue to be lower. Special populations of students, like English learners, were at the forefront of district’s planning at the beginning of the pandemic, but have also been from some of the families least ready to return to in-person instruction. Districts were already struggling to get English learners ready for all-English instruction prior to the pandemic, and without offering a way for students’ to engage safely with schooling this year, it is likely the challenges and gaps faced by this large and growing body of students will only continue to grow. Finally, students who are forced to disengage from school rather than run the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 will be experiencing a type of chronic absenteeism, which puts them at risk of dropout and not graduating from high school.

If the state is not going to do its part to support local districts in creating an environment where learning can take place safely, it will pay the price with deeper inequities and millions of students lagging behind and at risk of not being ready for tomorrow’s economy.

Daniel Potter is an associate director at the Houston Education Research Consortium, which is part of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.