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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott attends a security briefing at the Weslaco Department of Public Safety DPS Headquarters on Wednesday, June 30, 2021 in Weslaco, Texas.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott attends a security briefing at the Weslaco Department of Public Safety DPS Headquarters on Wednesday, June 30, 2021 in Weslaco, Texas. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/AP)

A Central Texas school district is temporarily closing after two teachers died of the coronavirus in the same week, as parents and lawmakers in the state continue to clash over mask mandates in the classroom.

Officials with the Connally Independent School District, north of Waco, said its five suburban schools are 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 Air Force veteran David "Andy" McCormick, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Connally Junior High School, died of COVID on Aug. 24, the district said.

"We are very heartbroken," Jill Bottelberghe, 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 that students or teachers wear masks, following an executive order by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mandates on face coverings in schools that's being challenged in court and defied by districts and counties statewide. Connally ISD has, however, recommended in its back-to-school guidelines that masks be worn in school.

Officials with the school district did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday. In a notice to parents this week, Connally ISD 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 COVID cases in the school district of less than 2,500 students was not specified, the district acknowledged to local media that there have been at least 51 confirmed infections at Connally Junior High School 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 because of the highly transmissible delta variant and millions who remain unvaccinated. 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 is averaging more than 15,700 new COVID cases a day in the past week, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. The figure accounts for about 10 percent 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 currently hospitalized for COVID, with 3,860 in intensive care units - the most in the nation.

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

As school districts have been ravaged from the latest surge, parents have grown outraged at Abbott and educators. Michelle Woodward told CNN she felt "rage" after learning her daughter was infected while attending school at 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 effect has played out in Central Texas schools. The Axtell Independent School District announced Tuesday it was also closing for four days because of 45 active COVID cases at the junior high school and high school, as well as five cases at the elementary school. Waco ISD began its mask mandate this week - a move that was praised by Farley Verner, the local health authority for the Waco-McClellan 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.

At Connally ISD, McCormick was last on campus on 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 been exposed, according to the Tribune-Herald. The entire staff at the junior high was tested between Sunday and Monday, she said.

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

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

McCormick, an Air Force veteran, was remembered in his obituary as husband, 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."

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