MISD keeps mask mandate in place

District trustees wrestle with guidance, will likely revisit in summer

Bill Spinks
Midlothian Mirror
Midlothian ISD bus drivers were recently treated to breakfast from district leadership in appreciation of their service to the district throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent winter storm. The MISD board of trustees decided at last week's meeting to keep the district's mask mandate in place until at least the end of the school year.

New guidance regarding COVID-19 and schools has been handed down by the Texas Education Agency. The problem is, the TEA has foisted the decision on local authorities, the Midlothian Independent School District board of trustees was told last week.

The board spent almost an hour and a half talking about how to move forward with local protocols during a marathon meeting on Monday, March 22 that lasted more than five hours in total, adjourning at 10:05 p.m.

In the end, the board took no action on the local mask mandate that is already in place, meaning it will remain for now. With state governmental messaging in some disarray, the board decided to keep the status quo.

“I’m a little frustrated with our governor and TEA because they made a decision and put it on us,” trustee Tami Tobey said. “I think that was a little bit wrong.”

MISD interim superintendent Dr. Courtney Carpenter said the sentiment of other school leaders at a recent meeting she attended was to get through this semester and revisit conditions in the summer and fall.

District director of human resource services Shorr Heathcote said the district is seeing an average of one new COVID case per day out of nearly 10,000 students enrolled. Heathcote recommended a reduction in quarantine from 14 to 10 days for both students and staff, based on input from the Ellis County Health Authority with case counts decreasing. The reduction passed unanimously.

Heathcote said continuing to require masks makes contact tracing easier and cuts down on lost time for both staff and students. The district will maintain a 6-foot social distancing requirement. Heathcote said the ultimate goal is to bring more online learners back into the classroom.

Virtual learning for the upcoming school year came under discussion as well, in light of the low number of positive cases in classrooms this year and the value of face-to-face interaction in social-emotional learning.

The topic of COVID drew a number of public speakers on either side. One speaker urged the board to keep the mask mandate in place, pointing out that one positive test could result in potentially more than a hundred students being forced to quarantine at inopportune times such as end-of-term testing, prom and graduation. Another speaker asked the board to set parameters for what a successful infection rate is, and others asked to allow parents the right to ask to choose.

The discussion occurred one day before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that COVID vaccinations would be opened to all Texans ages 16 and older starting Monday, March 29, which would include most upper-class students as well as all district staff. The state had previously added educators and school support staff to the vaccine-eligible list as of March 3.

All board members were present.

Other items

• The board viewed a video made by students in MISD regarding the district’s superintendent search. Trustee Tobey urged more involvement from the community in the search. A special board meeting was scheduled for March 29 to review applications for the job.

• The board tabled a motion to hire a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant for the district. In July 2020, the district submitted a request for proposals for the position to review practices, director Chalisa Fain told trustees. Board vice president Andrea Walton said she was not comfortable with making a motion on DEI-related curriculum.

• The board’s streaming contract with Swagit Productions was extended for the 2021-2022 school year unanimously. The district’s current contract allows for the streaming of 25 meetings at a total contract cost of $11,940, but only five meetings have been live-streamed since October, district chief technology officer Leslie Garakani said. Garakani pledged to look into lower tier prices for video service. The state requires that all school districts over 10,000 enrollment, which MISD was near before the pandemic, must live-stream their meetings.

• Recognitions were extended to Property Casualty Alliance of Texas bus driver of the year Jackie Fontaine-Lee; Heritage High School counselor Tiffany Gomez for her nomination for College Board counselor recognition; the Midlothian High School debate team for its national qualification; Larue Miller Elementary student Micah Moss for earning the Destination Imagination Magellan Award; HHS swimmer Jaxson Chambers for qualifying for the state swimming meet; the HHS girls’ basketball team for reaching the regional semifinals; and HHS students Kamryn Potter, Brent Penwarden and Isaac George for making all-state band and choir.

• The consent agenda was accepted with the exception of two items. Walton wanted more explanation of the timeline of infrastructure improvements and those costs to the district at Elementary School No. 8. Walton also inquired into gifts and donations to the district, in particular into donated lunches to students during the February winter storm. Both pulled items were approved.

• Assistant superintendent of finance and operations Jim Norris announced that the Texas Department of Agriculture has extended the district’s free feeding program for students until Sept. 30, which will cover summer school classes as well as early fall classes in the next school term.

• The board approved the dress code for the 2021-2022 school year with no changes.

• Assistant superintendent of human resources and student services KayLynn Day proposed a number of new positions for the upcoming school year: seven new teachers, one new school resource officer, one instructional technologist, one counseling department employee, two maintenance workers, and one math and science coordinator, among other positions. Day said those positions will not be filled until funding is made available.

• A facilities use policy was discussed after Tobey said she received complaints that middle school track facilities were closed for public use. District athletic director Todd York said the tracks at both Frank Seale and Walnut Grove Middle Schools are open 24-7 with turnstile access, and the tennis courts at Frank Seale and Dieterich Middle Schools are each open two days a week for youth tennis instruction.

• Trustees reviewed the district’s emergency preparedness plan in the aftermath of the February winter storm.

• A memorandum of understanding was approved with YMCA for a wide number of services provided by the organization that extend through the 2023-2024 school year.

• Trustees suggested a number of future agenda items and topics. Those items  included an update on the development of a Junior ROTC program brought up by trustee Gary Vineyard; a district-wide parade at the end of the year to celebrate the end of the COVID-19 pandemic suggested by Tobey; and a listing of future meetings, events and celebratory dates on the MISD calendar by Walton.