Something momentous happened this weekend.
Across Central Texas, thousands of high school seniors graduated. Indoors. And in person.
Just a year ago — with the coronarivus wreaking havoc across the nation — no one would have dreamed it would be possible to safely hold large indoor gatherings again so soon.
But beginning Thursday, five Killeen ISD high schools celebrated their graduating seniors, as their proud parents, grandparents, siblings and friends looked on.
The graduates were wearing face masks, as were the administrators on stage and the people looking on in the stands. But after a year in which so many traditional events and activities were either canceled or transformed into sterile, virtual observances, the wearing of masks was a small price to pay.
The commencement ceremonies didn’t just symbolize the transition of our local graduates to young adulthood. They also marked the transition of our community to a post-pandemic reality — even though it arrives in halting steps.
Starting June 1, Killeen ISD will no longer require masks at any of its campuses or administrative facilities. The announcement is a reflection of Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent declaration that county and municipal governments, as well as school districts, can no longer mandate the wearing of masks as of June 4.
A sizeable percentage of Central Texans still mask up wherever they go, especially where there tend to be large crowds, such as grocery stores. And indeed, many retail outlets and restaurants still require face masks, but that trend is starting to change.
Recently, Walmart and Target announced that mask wearing would be optional for both employees and customers. Many restaurants have eased their restrictions as well.
And while there are those who believe that it is too soon to drop the mask mandate, statistics seem to support the governor’s decision.
As of Tuesday, Bell County’s seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases was just six. To put that in perspective, on Jan. 12, the seven-day average was at 272. That same date recorded a single-day spike of 490 cases.
To further illustrate the drop in cases, it took just over two months — Dec. 11 to Feb. 22 — for the county to see its cumulative case numbers jump from 10,000 to 20,000. But in the month that followed, the total rose by just 1,000. And in the two-month period since March 25, the total has increased by only 148.
Clearly, the arrival of the three effective COVID vaccines in late February played a major role in slowing the spread of the virus. As of Thursday, more than 10 million Texans had been fully vaccinated, but that represents just 34.8% of the state’s population. About 43.5% of the population has received one dose.
Those numbers are far short of the 70% mark that health experts say is necessary to achieve herd immunity. So even though the overall case numbers are low, and there is reason for optimism, this is no time to let our guard down.
Some traditional events are still not fully open to the public. An hourlong Memorial Day ceremony at the Central Texas Veterans Cemetery will take place Monday, but the event is restricted to the participants and instead being shared via Zoom. Similarly, Harker Heights is offering a virtual Memorial Day ceremony, with photos of fallen service members shared by residents on the city’s website this weekend.
Other events, such as the farmers markets in Killeen and Heights are back in business, but with mask wearing encouraged for both vendors and attendees. And for the most part, area residents seem to be open to playing it safe.
But what is rather troubling is the recent cutback on information available to the public.
Last week, the Bell County Public Health District discontinued its daily dashboard updates, which provided viewers with information about the number of new cases, incidence rate and COVID-related deaths in the county. More importantly, the information was broken down by city, which was useful to show where the virus was most active.
The district noted that the incidence rate had fallen sharply, and that its director was leaving her post, so the time was right for ending the daily updates.
The Killeen school district is considering suspending its dashboard updates as well — a move that was endorsed by the public health district.
Superintendent John Craft noted that the number of cases in the district has fallen, and he’s right. Just five new cases were recorded between May 19 and May 26. In addition, Craft said, the number of page views for the site has dropped from around 27,000 per day in November and December to about 1,500 last week.
Still, curtailing the dashboard — which offers campus-specific case numbers for students and staff — would deny information to at least 1,500 area residents, and that’s not insignificant.
More importantly, with the mask mandate no longer in place and the district dropping virtual learning in the coming school year, the potential for spikes in COVID cases could rise quickly this fall. And although the district said it will monitor the cases and notify staff and students, it would still be helpful for parents to see for themselves where the surges are taking place.
The bottom line is that even though Central Texas appears to be winning the fight against the coronavirus, the battle isn’t over.
We still need to be vigilant, we need to be cautious, and we need to continue with the hygiene and social distancing practices that have helped us stop the virus’s spread to this point.
In addition, those who haven’t yet been vaccinated must step up and get their shots. The vaccine is free, it’s widely available and the side-effects for most people are fairly mild.
And with the COVID shots now open to children 12 and older, our school districts must play a part in seeing that all who want the vaccine can receive it.
In many ways, this Memorial Day weekend has marked a milestone in our difficult road back toward normalcy. We’ve come a long way since the shutdowns and isolation of last spring and summer.
But we still have a long way to go.
We simply can’t afford to abandon the sound, science-based practices that have brought us this far. Let’s celebrate our eased restrictions and renewed freedoms, but remember they come with a degree of personal responsibility and consideration.
We have fought this difficult battle together, as a community. Let’s see it through in the same spirit.