Michelle Woodard’s voice broke and her body shook with emotion as she described the moment she learned her 8-year-old daughter Cara tested positive for Covid-19 last week.
“I just felt this rage,” Woodard said.
What she feared most had come true: Her daughter, who attended school in a mask and face shield, had contracted the coronavirus. And Woodard believes this is the second time she’s had it.
And this time, Woodard says, it was preventable because medical experts had advised the use of universal indoor mask wearing in schools to stop the transmission of the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus. It’s unknown where Cara contracted the virus.
But at Cara’s school, in the Humble Independent School District in Texas, masks are optional, which violates a local mask mandate for all public schools and daycare centers issued by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo earlier this month.
Instead, school officials told CNN, the district is following Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic-related executive order banning school mask mandates. And Harris County authorities have not contacted them about the lack of compliance with the county order.
“Nobody in the school community cares about whether she is safe,” Woodard said, still shaking. “How can you call yourself a community when you don’t care, whether or not, the people in the community live or die?”
Since the start of the school year, more than 1,800 Humble ISD students and 350 staff have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the district’s dashboard.
And Covid-19 cases among Texas public school students have nearly tripled in a week, from August 15-22, according to the latest state data available, which shows more than 20,000 Texas students have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the school year.
Child hospitalizations spiking
Medical experts in the Houston area, which is where Humble ISD is located, are sounding the alarm about the record number of children contracting the coronavirus and requiring hospitalization.
“Over the past week we reached a peak in terms of the number of children hospitalized in a 24-hour period with Covid-19 at Texas Children’s,” Dr. James Versalovic, interim pediatrician in chief at Texas Children’s Hospital, told CNN Wednesday.
Last Wednesday, Versalovic told CNN his hospital had seen more than 65 pediatric patients in the previous week, a record number.
And children were showing up sicker than previously seen.
Despite the record numbers, CNN observed some parents walking their children to a Humble ISD school last week without a mask and asked if their kids would be wearing masks in the classroom.
“It’s a personal choice,” Jaime Urbina told CNN.
Urbina says his 7-year-old daughter, who attends second grade, doesn’t like wearing a mask. He says he knows the virus is real – because he lost his mother to Covid-19 last May, on Mother’s Day. But just like he doesn’t impose his will on others, he says, he expects the same in return when it comes to masks.
Ingrid Cuevas, a mom who dropped off two children, ages 5 and 7, without masks at school that morning, says her children were exposed to Covid-19 positive classmates last week. She says she kept them home for three days, monitored their health, and then sent them back to school without a mask.
“So far, they haven’t gotten sick,” Cuevas said.
According to its website, the school district will inform parents if there’s a positive case in their child’s elementary school classroom but children who’ve been exposed to the virus aren’t required to quarantine if they don’t show symptoms.
Instead, the district says, “families will determine what is best for their specific situation.”
‘It was the worst day of my life’
Woodard held back tears as she described Cara having trouble breathing in February of 2020 – before widespread lockdowns were imposed in the United States.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Woodard said, the pain clear in her voice.
Cellphone video shows Cara making wheezing sounds with every breath while sleeping in her mother’s arms.
One of the most frustrating things, Woodard said, was that doctors couldn’t explain why her daughter’s chest hurt so much, Woodard said.
“She was so inflamed,” Woodard said. “She kept saying it felt like someone was standing on her.”
Woodard says that months later, Cara’s pediatrician told her Cara possibly had Covid-19, given her condition and that she had just traveled internationally. At the time Covid-19 tests were not readily available.
That’s why she shared the 2020 cellphone video of her daughter, having trouble breathing, on social media with a small group of parents – to convince them to send their children to school wearing masks.
“I said, ‘this is real.’ This is not a joke. This isn’t politics. This is our kid’s health,” Woodard said.
But to Woodard’s disappointment, she says, the video did not persuade them to mask their children.
‘Do I have Covid? Am I going to die?’
CNN interviewed four mothers whose children attend Humble ISD.
Stacie Smith, Nicole Willis, Rosell Jenkins and Laura Castrillo say they are frustrated, angry, afraid, anxious and in disbelief that the district has not implemented a mask mandate, given the increasing number of Covid-19 cases among students and staff.
Willis says that while school administrators drag their feet, her 8-year-old daughter’s stress level is so high that when she had the sniffles last week, she asked her if she was going to die.
“Do I have Covid? Am I going to die?” Willis says her daughter asked her.
As Willis shares the story, she says she tries “not to cry because it’s really heartbreaking.”
“I do feel like it’s going to take more deaths for our district to do something,” Castrillo said, holding back tears. “That’s what is really scary.”
Jenkins says her 9-year-old son has also asked her about death and she is worried about the potential long-term mental health effects associated with that.
“Why can’t our district step up and protect our kids?” Smith said.
‘We are continuing to follow the Governor’s order’
CNN emailed the district twice last week, on Monday and Tuesday, requesting an interview with the superintendent of Humble ISD.
When receipt of our requests was not acknowledged, CNN followed up Thursday in person at the district’s administration office. Jamie Mount, the district’s chief communications officer, said the superintendent had a “scheduling conflict” and that she would address our questions about masks.
“We are continuing to follow the governor’s order and masks will remain optional at this time,” Mount said.
CNN pressed Mount about the Harris County mask mandate in schools, which has been upheld by Texas courts and remains law. Gov. Abbott is expected to appeal the latest court ruling, which was issued by a Texas judge Friday.
“Like many school districts in Harris County and throughout the state of Texas, we are continuing to follow the governor’s order and we will wait for the Texas Supreme Court to decide,” Mount said.
Mount also says that the district has adopted other mitigation measures like clean air technology and enhanced cleaning at school campuses, as well as offering students a virtual school option.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo says school districts are expected to enforce the mask mandate as they do every other school policy.
“The consequences for failing to do our basic due diligence to protect children are severe – sick children, more hospitalizations, and the potential for young people suffering from long Covid-19,” Hidalgo said.
Parents protest for a mask mandate
More than a dozen parents protested on foot and from their cars outside the Humble ISD administration office Monday, according to Smith, who provided CNN with photos of the event. Smith says she attended with her children to show them how to advocate for themselves and others.
“I wanted the leadership of our district to see them [her children], to serve as a reminder that this is about real people’s lives and their safety,” Smith said.
Woodard said she planned to attend, but instead developed a fever, congestion, body aches and a cough. So she decided to stay home and schedule an appointment to get tested for Covid-19. The earliest appointment she could find was Wednesday, she said.
“I’m vaccinated. I’m going to recover. I’m going to be fine. My whole concern was my daughter,” Woodard told CNN by phone between coughs.
As for Cara, Woodard said she doesn’t have any Covid-like symptoms and is scheduled to go back to class next Tuesday. But with the district not requiring masks, Cara’s teacher in isolation with Covid and at least nine of her classmates also infected, Woodard said she might pull Cara out of public school and enroll her in private school.
“That’s how frustrated I am,” Woodard said. “I just don’t understand the leadership in the school district.”
CNN’s Maggie Fox, Kacey Cherry and Sarah Moon contributed to this report.