Texas education officials attended indoor gathering before COVID-19 diagnoses

When members of the Texas State Board of Education finished their business for the day Nov. 19, they headed several blocks away to an Austin hotel for an informal reception.

Current and incoming board members, education lobbyists, and others in the Texas Capitol crowd gathered in the spacious DoubleTree Suites event rooms to honor the four members who were leaving the board this year, according to eight people The Texas Tribune interviewed who attended the event.

The roughly two-hour event, which followed another all-day board meeting, was informally organized and co-hosted by a number of education organizations, according to those people. About 30 to 45 people were there throughout the evening, two of the attendees estimated.

Within the next two weeks, at least three board members who attended their regular meeting and also went to the reception would test positive for COVID-19. The board’s support staff sent emails to board members notifying them of two of those positive tests. But five other people who attended the reception said they did not know about those positive tests until the Tribune reported it Tuesday.

“None of us who were there from HillCo knew that a board member had tested positive until we read about it in the Tribune,” said David Anderson, a lobbyist for HillCo Partners, which co-hosted the event.

The hotel wasn’t informed until the Tribune contacted it Friday. “After connecting with the hotel, we have learned that your inquiry is the first time that the hotel is learning of these three potentially ill individuals,” a Hilton spokesperson said in an email. “The hotel has also reached out to their client to advise them of this information. We have confirmed with hotel management that the hotel has not been contacted by the health department or by any individuals in attendance of potentially ill attendees.”

Most of the attendees wore masks most of the time, said multiple sources, including Anderson. Some of the people who spoke to the Tribune about the event requested anonymity because they feared speaking out would make it harder to do their jobs.

At one point, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath made an appearance, said Todd Webster, a Hillco Partners lobbyist and former Texas education commissioner who attended. All Texas Education Agency staff members who stopped by wore masks and adhered to safety protocols while there, Anderson said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people who have been in close contact with someone who has had COVID-19 to stay home for 14 days and monitor their symptoms. Last week, it announced that local public health departments could shorten that quarantine period to 10 days without testing or seven days with a test.

In response to questions about why event attendees were not told about the positive tests, board chair Keven Ellis said, “By the time … that we knew the information of the positive test, it was outside the window of the current CDC guidelines.”

The CDC shortened the quarantine period Dec. 2, two days after Ellis and other board members were notified about the first infection. Even with a shorter quarantine period, the CDC advises people to watch for symptoms for 14 days after possible exposure and strenuously adhere to safety precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

Ellis did not directly respond to questions about whose responsibility it would be to inform people who attended the reception about board members’ positive tests.

The incident comes as Texas gears up for January’s legislation session, a time when the state’s lobbyists, journalists and legislative staff are used to schmoozing in crowded bars, offices and hotel rooms after lawmakers adjourn for the day. The political work done in and around the Capitol usually thrives on close contact, with guests packed into the chamber galleries and committee rooms, lawmakers seated within a few inches of one another and lobbyists huddled with legislative staff in the hallways.

“In the political space, it’s just really difficult because … I think there’s that whole fear of missing out. That there are political conversations going on and people feel like, ‘In order for me to do my job, I need to go to these things.’ They go when they shouldn’t,” said a person who attended the event and works at an education organization. The person asked not to be named, fearing that speaking out would harm them professionally.

The 15-member, Republican-dominated State Board of Education meets about five times a year and determines what Texas public school students learn. After meeting virtually in April and June, members met in person in September and November.

Over the course of four days in November, members spent hours in the same room, arriving at 9 a.m. each day and sometimes not leaving until late afternoon or evening. They were spread out around the room, but the archived livestream shows many members not wearing masks while seated at their desks. At times, some did not wear masks within 6 feet of other members.

At the Nov. 19 reception following the board meeting, hotel employees served food and made drinks available for attendees, meaning some removed their masks to eat and drink, attendees said. The Hilton spokesperson said the hotel followed strict safety rules, including limiting capacity to 25{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}, setting all the seating areas at least 6 feet apart, and putting up signs to remind guests to stand 6 feet apart and wear masks.

Webster said he felt there were “a lot of precautions” taken, including separating the food from the area where people gathered, providing hand sanitizer and masks, offering an outdoor area for people to stand, and providing ample space indoors.

“It felt safer than going to a restaurant,” he said.

The only time Webster said he took his mask off was when he took a photo with a board member whose family had not been able to attend, he said. “Just for the brief moment, for the photo, but it was brief. And we kind of stood back [from each other],” he said.

Others appear to have also removed their masks for photos. Ken Mercer, one of four outgoing members being celebrated, publicly posted a photo on his Facebook page of himself posing next to lawyer Darrick Eugene. Mercer is not wearing a mask, and Eugene’s mask is pulled below his face. Mercer and Eugene did not respond to requests for comment this week.

From left: Attorney Darrick Eugene and outgoing SBOE member Ken Mercer at the reception for Mercer and other departing State…

Four people who attended said some in the room were not staying 6 feet apart from one another, with or without masks.

It is impossible to tell when or where the three board members who later tested positive for COVID-19 were infected. Experts say people can be infected with COVID-19 and not show symptoms for between two and 14 days.

Georgina Pérez, one member who tested positive for COVID-19, said she did not have symptoms until Nov. 26 and did not test positive until Nov. 30. She said she still has a persistent cough and extremely low energy. She said she was wearing a mask during the reception.

“I don’t think I got it there [at the event],” she said. “I think I got it at the boardroom, probably at any point where I had to eat lunch or drink a cup of coffee or water or something, because we were there for extended periods of time. It was the one room where we were constantly.”

But she said she was “very shocked” that others who attended the event had not known about her positive test and those of the other two board members until eight days after board members were notified.

Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Democratic board member, got tested for COVID-19 soon after she found out her colleagues had been infected. She tested negative, she said. Perez-Diaz said she kept her mask on and stood away from others during the retirement event at the hotel. She said she was not aware that attendees, other than board members, were not notified of the infections.

“I’m praying that nobody got sick that wasn’t informed. That would be heartbreaking,” she said.

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