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Austin ISD will strongly encourage masking indoors when the school year starts on Aug. 17. (Bob Daemmrich)

With new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spiking upwards in Austin and across the state, 31 Texas House Democrats are asking Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency to allow public school districts to offer virtual learning options and mandate masking during the upcoming school year.

"Only weeks ago it may have seemed that we Texans were putting the COVID pandemic behind us," State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, wrote in a letter to Abbott and Mike Morath, education commissioner, on Friday. "But the Delta variant has shown us that this, sadly, not the case."

As a result of the more contagious Delta variant, COVID cases and hospitalizations are rising rapidly—and overwhelmingly affecting unvaccinated individuals. The number of weekly new cases statewide has increased over fivefold in the last month, according to the Department of State Health Services.

This is of particular concern to school officials and families with school-age children, as most school districts are set to resume in-person learning in less than a month and children under 12 remain ineligible for any COVID vaccine.

"The academic year will be starting soon, and we have heard from school officials and parents in our districts that the path we are on is not acceptable to them," Goodwin wrote. "To meet this challenge, schools must be given options that they currently do not have."

Abbott told a Houston TV news station on Tuesday that he would not impose another mask mandate, saying it would be "inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask."

Goodwin and her co-signers—including State Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, Donna Howard, Celia Israel, Gina Hinojosa and Sheryl Cole of Austin—asked Abbott and Morath to allow schools to implement virtual learning options for students who are at-risk or unvaccinated. State lawmakers failed to pass legislation during the regular session that would have funded such options.

"Families are concerned about matters of life and death: if they feel that pulling their child out of school is the only way to survive, then they will do that," she wrote.

Goodwin also asked state leaders to allow school districts to mandate masking on campus. Abbott issued an executive order in May that prohibits public schools from issuing such mandates.

Austin ISD will "strongly encourage everyone, whether vaccinated or not, to wear a mask when indoors and around others who are not in their immediate household," according to its COVID protocols for the upcoming school year. Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde also told the Austin American-Statesman editorial board this week that the district is considering offering limited virtual learning.


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