East Texas school superintendent to Gov. Abbott: ‘Man, we need your help’

East Texas school leaders discuss challenges and successes when it comes to dealing with COVID-19
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Published: Sep. 14, 2021 at 6:58 PM CDT
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EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - In the weeks since school started, a lot has happened. We’ve seen mask mandates defying the governor’s executive order, incentives for vaccinated staff members, and districts forced to close because of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, East Texas Now hosted 10 area superintendents for a roundtable discussion about the challenges when it comes to dealing with COVID-19.

“Look, I’m all about personal freedom,” said Dr. Brent Hawkins, the superintendent of Livingston ISD. “But our freedom ends when the next man’s begins. And we’re at that point.”

Hawkins leads one of the many East Texas districts forced to close this year due to COVID-19. He believes now is the time to make data-driven decisions, and thinks those decisions are made best at the local level.

“The governor has been on Twitter talking about that the positivity rates going down. Well, Texas is a big state and in our particular community, the rate isn’t going down,” Hawkins said. “I don’t want to start a fourth-year battling COVID. And so, what I would tell the governor is, ‘Man, we need your help.’ We need to allow districts to make decisions that are best for our communities, and not a one=size-fits-all for the state.”

“We’re in a state of emergency right now and I would like to see it handled that way,” said Dr. Carnelius Gilder, the assistant superintendent of West Sabine ISD. “We’re in a public health crisis now more than we were before.”

Opinions on whether or not things like masking should be a state or local decision differed from district to district.

“I do not think masks will be required in Huntington ISD unless it was a mandate where you had to,” said David Flowers, the superintendent of Huntington ISD. “If he (Abbott) left it up to local control, I do not think you will see masks in Huntington ISD.”

The percentage of students and staff voluntarily choosing to wear a mask also varied.

“I would think we’re running about 5 percent of our students and 5 to 10 percent of our staff wearing masks in the district,” said Stan Surratt, the superintendent of Lindale ISD.

“I’d say we probably have roughly 20 percent of our kids and probably roughly 20 percent of our staff that’s putting a mask on,” said Steve Clugston, the superintendent of Pine Tree ISD in Gregg County.

Meanwhile, other districts like Longview, Chapel Hill, and Diboll ISDs are requiring masks, going against the governor’s order, and are now being sued by the state’s attorney general.

Dr. James Wilcox, the superintendent of Longview ISD, defended the decision on Tuesday, saying it was not a political decision. Longview is also one of the latest districts to offer incentives or stipends to vaccinated staff members, with the board approving a $1,000 incentive on Monday night. Nacogdoches ISD is offering $500.

“We’ve opted to look at what can we do to use our resources in such a way that can help us address our staff,” said Gabriel Trujillo, the superintendent of Nacogdoches ISD. “The most important element and keeping school open is to make sure that our staff remains healthy.”

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