When it was Dr. Christina Propst's time to speak, the pediatrician turned to face the room and tried to install a reality check. "Our children's hospitals are full. Our hospitals are full. There are children dying in our ICUs and I can tell you, anyone here who thinks children cannot get COVID there are children who have died this week in the Texas Medical Center."
At that point, she was greeted with jeers. Talked over with denials. And when she tried to reclaim some of her co-opted time, more groans and loud hums overtook her words while HISD Board President Patricia Allen asked audience members to "respect our speakers."
These anti-maskers rejected her science and clung closely to their own, a science that argues how can a mesh covering over one's nose and mouth keep out tiny molecules. A science that says masks not only get bloody and dirty but trap pneumonia-causing microbes next to children's mouths and make them sick. A science with claims like speaker Charlsie Idol's that "it has been proven" that masks can deform children's faces. There was no mention of the more than 3 million people worldwide who so far have died from the coronavirus.
These are the people who say they know best for their children and don't want any interference from "bureaucrats" or the school district. Pastor Evan McClanahan of First Lutheran Evangelical Church in downtown Houston began by challenging the trustees on their scientific knowledge and declared "Children are at virtually no risk for COVID and masks are largely useless." He quoted a passage from C.S. Lewis arguing against tyranny and "moral busybodies."
Some speakers rushed through their allotted minute so quickly they were unintelligible. Others raised their voices, threatening the board members that they can be voted out because of what they were ready to do. "First I want to remind you that you work for us, You don't care about our children," said Jackie Abreu-Hill. "You care about your reputation and who pulls your puppet strings. If you cared about our children, you would be a strong advocate to close our border and ... wouldn’t let super spreaders into our local community."
Wearing a distinctive T-shirt with the words "COVID-19 just tested positive for FRAUD," speaker Greg Johnson said he'd set up his own "random controlled trials" and insisted that a friend of his had died from his second COVID shot. "Statistically speaking, children have a zero percent chance of severe illness or dying from this and there is no proof of a child spreading it to a teacher."
Still, there were masked speakers in attendance besides Propst who applauded new superintendent Millard House II's decision to mandate masks for everyone at all HISD facilities as the school year starts on Monday, August 23. Dr. Laura Armstrong, a family physician and the mother of three children, who urged the need for masks to blunt community spread, pointed out that only 45 percent of Texans are vaccinated and that the Delta variant is twice as contagious as prior versions of the virus.
One medical doctor did win the enthusiastic applause of the anti-mask crowd. Dr. Richard Urso declared "Masks don't work." (The ophthalmologist, who practices in the Houston area, was investigated and cleared of wrongdoing by the Texas Medical Board in 2020 after he prescribed hydroxychloroquine for patients with COVID-19.)
Hours later, trustees voted unanimously to support their new superintendent's determination earlier this week that given the Code Red status Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has declared as a result of the sudden rise not only in COVID cases but in hospitalizations, masks should be part of the new school uniform at least until conditions improve. How that will play out in schools — several parents said they would defy the HISD mandate and their children would not be wearing masks — is anyone's guess.
And although Thursday night's meeting didn't reflect it, trustees said they'd received hundreds of emails about the masks, most from parents and teachers desperate to see the safety measure in place when in-person classes resume. Trustee Sue Deigaard said she heard "from a lot of doctors who are treating children with COVID who are imploring us to do this simple thing to mitigate the health consequences of this virus." One trustee after another said they weren't just worried about the children at their schools, but teachers, bus drivers and custodial staff.
Trustee Dani Hernandez argued "this is not a political issue," but clearly politics was in the room from the Make America Great Again gimmie cap of speaker Andy Ramsey to the you're-not-the-boss-of-me theme that ran strongly through the evening. Speaker Ana Lopez Milan declared indignantly that when she went to her son's HISD school that morning "I was forced to put on a mask, violating my civil rights. And now you are trying to do the same to our children."
But parent Troy Griffin had a different take.
"I don't wear my mask as a political statement. I wear it because I love my child," the father of a first grader said in a reasonable tone. "We know masks work. That's why doctors wear them in the emergency room. that's why we wear them in the hospital. They stop the spread."
Later in the evening, as trustees prepared to vote to support House's action, board member Elizabeth Santos tried to sort through her feelings.
"This is an issue of public health. It is not something to politicize," she said before confiding: "I felt scared tonight. I am a new mom. I gave up a job so I could stay home and take care of my son during COVID and tonight was difficult. It was difficult to be in a room where I was thinking 'People don't care about my son and what I bring home to him and what he might suffer.'"
On Friday at 5:30 p.m., HISD will release an updated version of its "Ready, Set Go" plan on how the district plans to keep students and staff safe for the coming year. To watch it, visit the link https://zoom.us/j/92904290551. The session will also be recorded and made available online at HoustonISD.org.