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74 Interview: Dallas Supt. Michael Hinojosa on Why ‘Everything’s at Stake’ in His Legal Battle Over Masking, Catching Students Up, Vaccine Mandates

By Asher Lehrer-Small | September 2, 2021

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has required that all students in his district wear masks, defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order. (Dallas ISD via YouTube)

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This conversation is the latest in our ongoing series of in-depth 74 Interviews (scan our full archive). Other notable recent interviews: Author Amanda Ripley on making “The Smartest Kids in the World” into a documentary; Sen. Chris Murphy on banning federal funding for school police and 16-year-old coder “Jay Jay” Patton on connecting kids and incarcerated parents.

As COVID cases surged across the country this summer, fueled by spread of the highly infectious Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined the American Academy of Pediatrics in recommending that all students and staff wear masks in school. But in Texas, as in a handful of other conservative states, an executive order banning mask mandates forbade school districts from following that guidance.

In Dallas, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa felt that he was faced with a choice: risk over 153,000 students’ safety or risk legal challenges. The superintendent chose the latter, defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban and paving the way for dozens of other districts in the state to follow the same path.

Now nearly a month into the school year, and as COVID rages through the Dallas community, the struggle is making its way through state courts. And all the while, Hinojosa is contending with the urgent question of how to bring students back up to speed after a year of disrupted learning.

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This year, Dallas is rolling out discipline reforms to end racial disparities in suspension, new social-emotional supports and revamped school calendars to boost students’ learning time.

The 74 caught up with Hinojosa over the phone to hear how those efforts are unfolding and get the latest on the district’s legal showdown over masks.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: It’s been a pretty surreal back-to-school season and Dallas has been in the news a lot. What’s top of mind for you right now?

Hinojosa: Last year was a year like no other, and this August has been an August like no other. Even as surreal as last year was, this August has been even crazier.

On Aug. 3, our county went to code red (representing high COVID transmission). The very next day, I’m attending a meeting of some superintendents … and we heard from a very prominent attorney that maybe the governor can’t enforce this (ban on mask mandates). So the Houston superintendent calls me and is telling me they’re thinking about implementing a mask mandate protocol and so I said, “I’m with you.” I really felt it was under my authority, since I have the authority to run the day-to-day operations of the school district.

Aug. 9 we announced our mask protocols, and then everything breaks loose.

I’ve been following along with the legal developments. Dallas ISD’s mask mandate was challenged, and then a judge ruled in your favor. But now the state attorney general has appealed. Can you give me a sense of where you think this whole thing is headed?

Well, it changes almost on a daily basis.

We prevailed at the district court. But the governor (Greg Abbott) and attorney general (Ken Paxton) can appeal to an appeals court and we think we’ll win there. But we think eventually we’re going to lose at the (Texas) Supreme Court … because they’re all conservative members.

It’s very interesting that the attorney general and the governor have both said publicly that they’re going to prosecute anybody who implements a mask protocol. But in the court pleadings, they said that they had no authority to do that. Then the commissioner of education (Mike Morath) has come out and said that they’re not going to enforce anything until all of these court proceedings are over.

So what I predict is that eventually this will go to the Supreme Court and we will be told at some point that we cannot have our mask protocol as we want it. But there’s going to be no enforcement, because I don’t see the local district attorneys coming after all 60 superintendents in Texas that are defying the governor’s executive order.

We’ve said all along, this was temporary. Come November, if we get back under 500 COVID cases in the county and we’ve stopped the spread on campuses, then I’ll be glad to lift the mask mandate. I don’t really like it myself, but we’re trying to protect the health and safety of our students.

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As I’m sure you know, the federal government is opening civil rights probes into five states over their ban on mask mandates in schools. Texas isn’t on that list because the issue is already in the hands of the courts. But more broadly, what type of federal involvement might be useful in Texas? And do you see bans on mask mandates as a civil rights issue?

One of the reasons [the U.S. Department of Education] didn’t go after Texas is that they now have the understanding that what the governor has done is unenforceable. So that’s why we weren’t included in that order.

But it could be a civil rights issue. We’ll have to see how that plays out. We do get federal dollars for special education and economically disadvantaged students and, of course, they have given us significant dollars for the Recovery Act. So the feds do have some skin in this game and they’re not just sitting on the sidelines.

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Seems like the federal government is trying to find out whether bans on mask mandates systematically exclude specific students, perhaps immunocompromised students from the classroom.

Yeah, that’s the focus of their inquiry, which gives them standing on this matter and, of course, those students are all over the country, so it does give them an entrée, I believe. But I’m not an attorney.

Over the weekend, Dr. Fauci told CNN that school [COVID] vaccine mandates for eligible students are a good idea based on the benefit-to-risk ratio. Schools already require a number of other vaccinations for enrollment and the FDA recently gave full approval to the Pfizer shot for folks 16 and up. What are your thoughts on the topic of mandating student vaccinations?

I’m supportive. I’m not ready to litigate at this time yet. What we’ve done instead to start with is we’re giving a $25 gift card for any student who provides his or her proof of vaccination. So we’re going down that path, we’re going a little bit more slowly (than we did with our mask policy).

But we would be supportive, especially when our younger students can take the vaccine, and we’re now hearing late November, early December when that vaccination will be available. I would be in favor of [a student immunization requirement]. You’re exactly right. We require other vaccines and so I would be very supportive of that, although I’m not going to be as assertive on that one as we have been on the mask protocol.

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So just to clarify, when students under 12 do become eligible for shots that might open the door for Dallas to move toward mandating student vaccines? 

Yes, I would definitely consider it at that point because it’d be much more universal.

And for staff vaccine mandates, they’re banned in Texas but have been implemented in a number of states. Do you think making COVID shots mandatory for teachers might be an appropriate public health measure? And how do politics play in?

We have 22,000 employees and so we told them that we would give them a $500 stipend if they prove that they were vaccinated. Within three hours, we had 6,000 staff turn in their documentation. We are now up to around 11,000 and then the ones that just went out and took the vaccine, it takes them a while to get their documentation. So we anticipate we’ll get probably three-quarters on a voluntary basis.

But to answer your question, yes, I would be very supportive, especially for campus employees who deal with children to be required to have a vaccination. But even our county hospital can’t require vaccination in Texas for their nurses because of the state laws that are in place. When San Antonio ISD tried to do that, they got halted by the attorney general.

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And in a sentence or two, what’s at stake in these safety decisions for students, families and teachers?

Everything’s at stake here.

Not only their safety, but the data is overwhelming that in-person instruction is by far the best. A few, maybe five percent of the students, do better virtually. But can you imagine if we have to have students at home because [COVID] spread got so bad that they lose another year of instruction? A whole generation could be at risk of falling so far behind that they can’t catch up. So there’s a lot at stake.

We’re very proud that we got to 97 percent of our projected enrollment and out of that, 96 percent of it is in person. So our students are glad to be back. Our families are glad to be back, but boy, we’ve got a big hill to climb academically.

On that topic of catching students up, especially given the fact that more often than not, some of those students who fell furthest behind last year were those who perhaps had fewer supports or financial resources at home, what efforts are underway in Dallas to help kids get back up to speed? I read about a tutoring program, for instance.

Well, we had 36,000 households without connectivity, so we put together a program called Operation Connectivity to connect our families and we executed on that plan. [At first] we did hotspots, but now we put up towers so that at least they can have access if they’re having to learn from home.

We’re also going to have tutoring during the school day, afterschool and in the summer.

But we now have three different calendars. One of them is a year-round calendar, where you get more time. Another one is what we call an intersession calendar, where you go five weeks, and then you’re off a week, go another five weeks, and you go off a week. We catch students up [who are behind during that week off]. For our most challenging schools — we have 60 that we call “high-priority campuses” — we have a very robust afterschool program from 3 to 6 p.m. for enrichment activities and strong academic activities to try to get them caught up.

And we’ve completely reinvented our summer school. So we’re doing all of those things all at the same time to accelerate learning.

Can you tell me a bit more about those different calendars? Where did the idea come from, what’s the goal, and do you know of other districts using that same model?

There’s a school district in the El Paso area called Socorro that has had this intersession calendar ever since the ‘90s and they’ve had good academic results where they bring in the students that are behind during the week that they’re off. Garland ISD, which is one of our neighbors, went to that calendar last year, but there is no other district that has the multiple options that we have.

To be one of the five schools using the year-round calendar or [one of the] 41 schools that are in intersession calendars, each had 80 percent of the teachers and 80 percent of the parents opt into those calendar options. … We didn’t want to force families to take one of those calendars.

At scale, nobody else is doing it like we are, other than the two that I mentioned, Garland and Socorro. So we think that students in those schools they’re going to have a better opportunity to catch up than if you just went with a traditional calendar.

We’re using a lot of our federal ESSA dollars to pay for this extra time. We know who our best teachers are, and our best teachers get more money to teach those intersession opportunities. Instead of working 180 days, they’ll be working 210 days. So there’s significant dollars that will be going into the pockets of our teachers, and especially our best teachers, because they’ll get the opportunity to do a lot of those enrichment and intervention opportunities.

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I know last year Dallas moved to end suspensions. Where does that effort now stand?

We’re pulling forward with it. Ten percent of our students are African-American males, yet 51 percent of our suspensions were African-American male, until now. If you [engage in severe misbehavior] you will still be suspended, but we’re talking about the discretionary suspension and the discretionary suspensions were 75 percent of our suspensions. We’re going to have a different alternative on how to redirect their behavior.

We’ll have some data sets at the end of the first nine weeks about where we are and we’ll also have data in a year about how this journey to redirect behavior through these reset centers went. So stay tuned.

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We’ll be following those results. Turning to the social-emotional well-being of the wider student population, I know that last fall Dallas ISD teachers were trained in trauma-informed care. What results did you see from that training? How do you see Dallas ISD’s commitment to social-emotional learning changing in response to COVID-19 traumas? 

We got $7 million from the Wallace Foundation to implement social-emotional learning districtwide. They hired the RAND Corporation to do a research study. But we ran into a problem because we couldn’t have a treatment group and a control group. All of our campuses wanted to have that training and so we kind of threw the research out the window.

We trained the teachers first so they could help deal with the students and we also hired 58 mental health and social work professionals last year, knowing that we were going to need them this year. … We just went all in, as many as we could afford.

Last question, what’s sustaining you through the pandemic? Where are you finding positive stories to counterbalance all the tense circumstances?

People don’t want a whiner. They want a problem solver. So if you lose hope and aspiration, then that gives other people permission to lose hope. I’m generally a positive person, I look for solutions.

I’ve had very little pushback on my mask mandate protocol. In fact, I’ve had mostly universal support and so I think that just shows that if you’re willing to take a risk, and look to the future in a positive way that people will climb aboard with you. So far, so good.

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