By Jason Allen

PARKER COUNTY, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – There were no social media posts, emails to parents or hastily scheduled school board meetings at the Peaster Independent School District after Governor Greg Abbott announced the end to state mask orders last week.

The rural school district in Parker County, northwest of Weatherford, never made masks an issue for students or staff this school year. Wear one, or don’t.

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It has not distanced students inside classroom.

No one has been placed into a mandatory quarantine.

Homecoming happened on schedule.

The pancake dinner, fall festival, sports and concerts all took place as planned.

The result, according to Superintendent Lance Johnson, has been a higher enrollment and average daily attendance numbers ahead of last year.

Johnson also said district data shows most students are on track to finish the school year on grade level, closing the learning gap that occurred when schools shut down last spring.

“Our kids have thrived and our teachers have thrived,” he said. “And it’s just been real eye opening to see how we’ve done things different than other schools.”

Johnson has frequently found himself on the phone, or in meetings with other school district leaders or legislative staff members, interested in how the district of about 1,400 students has managed an approach opposite to conventional school health policies.

He tells them there’s no magic to it.

“It’s real simple. We’ve just done it,” he said. “It’s not that difficult if you really put the needs of kids first.”

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After the initial experience with virtual learning last year, PISD did what many districts did, surveying families on what type of learning they would be comfortable with.

Fifty-five percent indicated they would still send their children to school if masks and six feet of social distancing were required at all grade levels. That jumped to 86% participation though, if school was offered as close to the traditional model as possible.

“Our teachers and our school board and our community just stood in solidarity to say you know what, we’re going to do what’s best for kids,” Johnson said. “And what’s best for kids is having them in school, learning, in a traditional school model.”

Students returned to school on time in August. Johnson said the district fully supported anyone wearing masks. Anyone who did not, was assumed to be exercising an allowed medical or religious exemption.

There were no cases of COVID-19, he said, during the first 10 weeks of school. Cases did start to occur during the fall among students, and staff. State data shows at least three reported by staff members. Johnson estimated total cases could have approached 10, but acknowledged some cases could have gone unreported.

There were campus shutdown policies in place for consecutive days of high absenteeism, but it was not used. There were just a dozen more teacher absences in the fall, than during the same period in 2019.

The rural setting of Peaster may have offered an advantage.

Johnson points out families still regularly travel into Weatherford and Fort Worth, however.

The district is smaller, with just three school campuses, but space is relative he said. Peaster isn’t putting kids into larger buildings.

There was heavy initial criticism of the approach, and it lasted into the fall, including a complaint to the Texas Education Agency. The Weatherford Democrat reported in October the agency reviewed the complaint and took no action on it.

Monday, just eight students were still utilizing virtual learning. Johnson believes other districts could do the same thing Peaster is doing.

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“18 months ago what we’re doing to kids would’ve been criminal,” he said. “And here we are fighting going back to that model, fighting letting kids be kids, and letting kids socialize and letting them have a normal school year.”