Texas Legislature Second Special Session: The Arc of Texas Supports HB 164

The Arc of Texas Leadership and Advocacy Coordinator Wendolyn Ward provided written testimony to the Texas House of Representatives Public Education Committee on August 30 supporting House Bill 164, which intended to provide board of trustees of school districts and governing bodies of open-enrollment charter schools the flexibility to require individuals to wear face coverings to reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide input on HB 164. My name is Wendolyn Ward, and I am the Leadership and Advocacy Coordinator at The Arc of Texas. The Arc of Texas promotes, protects, and advocates for the human rights and self-determination of Texans with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). This includes children with disabilities attending public schools across the state.

We strongly support HB 164 and its intent to provide the board of trustees of a school district or the governing body of an open-enrollment charter school the flexibility to require individuals to wear face coverings to reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 in Texas. This legislation is particularly significant considering escalating COVID-19 caseloads, increasing hospitalizations, and extreme downward pressure on our health care systems. As of August 27, 2021, there are 303 ICU beds available for critically ill patients among the more than 29 million people in the state.

This pandemic is also harming our children. During the week ending August 22nd, an average of 46 children were hospitalized due to COVID-19 in Texas each day. We must do all we can to mitigate risks by protecting children in school settings which include buildings, buses, and other congregate educational settings. HB 164 provides local authority to school boards of trustees to enact measures that protect many of the most vulnerable among us.

Children with disabilities who have special health care needs due to chronic physical, developmental, behavioral, emotional, and medically complex conditions are particularly susceptible to the disease’s dangerous variants. It is important that learners with disabilities have access to specialized education services in public schools where they receive the vital supports needed to succeed academically along with their peers. The most effective way to ensure all students can access in-person learning, including students with disabilities and those under age 12 who are currently ineligible to be vaccinated, is to implement universal indoor masking.

The CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students, teachers, staff, and visitors to grades K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, due to the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, which is circulating in communities across Texas. Masks can help limit exposure and prevent spreading the disease to others. This bill represents a commonsense approach that provides protection against COVID-19, which is ravaging our state. We can take these measures to protect ourselves now, and in the future, should an even more dangerous illness emerge and alter our way of life again.

We must recognize our interconnectedness and embrace solidarity when public health is at risk, affecting our ability to send our children safely to school. Wearing a mask must not be equated with making a political statement, particularly when children are wearing them. Children are not indifferent to the needs of their peers, including those most vulnerable to illness, hospitalization, and death. We should emulate their example.

Thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony.