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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Texas district closes schools after COVID-19 kills two teachers in one week

By Timothy Bella Washington Post

A Central Texas school district is temporarily closing after two teachers died of COVID-19 in the same week, while parents and legislators in the state continue to clash over mask mandates in classrooms.

Officials with the Connally Independent School District, north of Waco, said its five suburban schools will be closed until after the Labor Day holiday following the COVID-19 death Saturday of Natalia Chansler, 41, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Connally Junior High School. Her death came just days after 59-year-old David “Andy” McCormick, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Connally Junior High, died of COVID-19 on Aug. 24, the district said.

“We are very heartbroken,” Jill Bottelberghe, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “It is very devastating as far as the students, the staff and the community as a whole.”

It is unclear whether either teacher was vaccinated.

The district does not mandate students or teachers wear masks, following an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mandates on face coverings in schools that is being defied by districts statewide. The Connally district has recommended in its back-to-school guidelines masks be worn.

Officials with the school district did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday. In a notice to parents this week, Connally Superintendent Wesley Holt said the closure would “provide those who are positive with the virus or exposed to others with the virus, the time to isolate and recover.” While the number of coronavirus cases in the school district of less than 2,500 students was not specified, the district acknowledged to local media that there had been at least 51 confirmed infections at Connally Junior High alone since classes started Aug. 18.

“This closure will also allow time for deep cleaning and sanitizing of all CISD facilities,” Holt said in an email to parents.

The news comes as the battle over mask mandates in schools has intensified in recent weeks in Texas, where the coronavirus has spiked amid the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant. The Texas Supreme Court denied Abbott’s request last month to block temporary restraining orders on his ban on mask mandates, allowing schools that are requiring face coverings in defiance of the state to proceed.

Mike Morath, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, which suspended enforcement of Abbott’s ban in the state’s public school systems because of several ongoing court challenges, said Tuesday that the issue of whether districts can enforce mask mandates must be settled in court.

“This issue has a lot of folks fired up,” he told KXAS.

Surging infections and hospitalizations in Texas have left many parents worried about sending their children back into classrooms where others are not masked and could transmit the virus. The state has averaged more than 15,700 new coronavirus cases a day in the past week, according to data compiled by the Washington Post. The figure accounts for about 10% of the new cases nationally in the past week, and Texas is second only to Florida for most daily infections. There are close to 14,500 people hospitalized for COVID-19, with 3,860 in intensive care units – the most in the nation.

In McLennan County, which includes Waco and Connally, health officials reported 263 new cases Tuesday, as well as 11 deaths. The county’s seven-day average for new cases is the highest it has been at any point of the pandemic. County data shows that 45% of the population is fully vaccinated, lower than the 47% vaccination rate across Texas.

LaShonda Malrey-Horne, director of Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, told The Post that 191 people in the country are hospitalized because of the virus. She said many of the new cases in the county have come from school systems.

“The main thing we’re emphasizing and sharing to parents is for them to keep sick children at home and to wear a mask, and encouraging people to get vaccinated,” Malrey-Horne said.

As school districts have been hit by the latest surge, parents have grown angry at Abbott and educators. Michelle Woodward told CNN she felt “rage” after learning her daughter was infected while attending school in Humble, Texas, a Houston suburb. Terri Gurganious, whose daughter, Brennah, was placed on a ventilator last week at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, wrote on Facebook that she believes her child contracted the virus at school in Buna, in East Texas.

“If we kept our kids home and not sending exposed kids or faculty to school this wouldn’t have happened,” she wrote.

A similar scenario has played out in Central Texas schools. The Axtell Independent School District announced Tuesday it was closing for four days because of 45 active coronavirus cases at the junior high school and high school, as well as five cases at the elementary school. The Waco Independent School District began a mask mandate this week – a move that was praised by Farley Verner, the local health authority for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.

“Universal masking in the school setting will be expected to significantly reduce the risk of in-school transmission, school outbreaks and school closures,” Verner wrote in a statement.

In the Connally district, McCormick was last on campus Aug. 18 and died six days later. Chansler tested positive for the virus one day after McCormick’s death. Bottelberghe told the Associated Press that the district has “not found any correlation” between the two deaths. The district began contact tracing after Chansler’s positive test and gave students and teachers the option to quarantine if they had potentially been exposed, according to the Tribune-Herald. The entire staff at the junior high was tested between Sunday and Monday, Bottelberghe said.

The district announced Tuesday that it was making drive-through coronavirus testing available at Connally High School for staffers, students and families. Holt wrote to parents that the district was “focused on measures to take care of our students and staff.”

Even with school closing for a week, Connally High School football coach Terry Gerik said the team was still scheduled to play its game Friday night, the AP reported.

McCormick, an Air Force veteran, was remembered in his obituary as a husband, a father of three and someone who “had a love for sports and educating young minds.” Chansler was praised by former co-worker Mary Evans on Facebook as a “beautiful and super talented soul.”

“She will truly be missed,” Evans wrote. “Please pray for her family and friends who love her dearly.”