School mask battle continues in Texas


The conflict over face coverings between Texas school districts and the state government took a turn this week when the Texas Education Agency (TEA) declared it would not enforce Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) ban on school mask mandates amid ongoing court cases.

The move comes amid a fierce battle over mask mandates in public places and as Texas sees its highest COVID-19 caseload since the winter, overwhelming hospitals and infecting even fully vaccinated individuals, including Abbott.

The week was a roller coaster for the Lone Star State, starting with a Texas Supreme Court ruling upholding Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates in schools and other public places. 

The court temporarily reversed its decision on Thursday, allowing a Travis County judge’s order restraining Abbott’s bans to remain in place due to a technicality that an appeals court had not yet heard the case. 

But for now, schools appear to have the upper hand with the authority to implement mask requirements.

Updated guidance from the TEA requiring schools to notify parents, teachers and school staff of positive COVID-19 cases within classrooms, along with the new ruling from the Texas Supreme Court leaving in place mask mandates, gives schools major resources to fight the COVID-19 virus.

“Tonight, we turn out the lights knowing that another day has passed with local rules still in place,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) tweeted following the Texas Supreme Court decision on Thursday. “Sleep well.”

Abbott, after testing positive for COVID-19, has also taken steps this week to emphasize his commitment to fighting the spread of the virus, though not directly addressing masks in schools. 

His office announced Thursday that more front-line medical personnel would be deployed to help overwhelmed hospitals and that additional COVID-19 antibody infusion centers would be opened across Texas. 

"Front-line health care workers across our state are working tirelessly to keep Texans healthy and safe," Abbott said in a statement. "The substantial increase of infusion centers will reduce hospitalizations, and the added medical personnel will help treat COVID-19 patients already in hospitals."

Abbott, who is fully vaccinated and receiving antibody therapy treatment in response to his positive COVID-19 test, noted that “hospitalizations can also be prevented by Texans getting the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Schools have become a COVID-19 battleground in several states as some governors, including Abbott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), have outlawed mask mandates in schools, prompting some local districts to challenge the bans.

Austin Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde published an op-ed in Time magazine earlier this week defending the district’s decision to mandate mask wearing.

“Requiring masks is not and never has been about defying the Governor,” Elizalde wrote. “This is about having local control to respond to the data about our local conditions, which have become dire.”

Shannon Holmes, the executive director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE), said after “a heck of a week” that he doesn’t think the battle is over but instead is “just changing venues at this point” to an appeals court. 

“The fact that all of this is happening right as school has begun just creates uncertainty for teachers and for parents and honestly for school administrators,” he said. 

“We've heard a lot of just uncertainty essentially on both sides of what to do at this point,” he added. “There are certainly more questions than there are answers to this point.”

ATPE, the largest educators association in the state, called on Abbott last month to revoke his order banning mask requirements in schools, saying the decision should fall to individual school districts. 

Paris Independent School District (ISD), located in northeast Texas, also announced this week that it amended its dress code to include masks while criticizing the governor for trying to usurp the board of trustees's “exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district.”

But Dennis Eichelbaum, an attorney with Eichelbaum Wardell Hansen Powell and Muñoz who serves as general counsel to Paris ISD and other districts, said he didn’t see it as a “loophole.”

“It’s just to me the obvious option since the governor doesn't have any authority over our dress codes,” he said. 

“The board of trustees felt that based upon the current pandemic and the concerns about kids who are not able to get vaccinated, that it was in the best interest of the students and the faculty to mandate masks,” he added. 

COVID-19 cases have spiked across the U.S. and in Texas over the summer with the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant. The Lone Star State reached a seven-day average of more than 16,000 cases per day on Thursday — the highest point since early February, according to data from The New York Times. 

“Our cases yesterday were higher than our seven-day moving average, our hospitalizations higher than our seven-day moving average,” Adler told The Hill earlier this week. “ICUs higher than our seven-day moving average, so we are still real concerned about the numbers we are seeing.”

Texas also has the most children currently hospitalized with almost 200 pediatric beds filled, followed by Florida with 179 children hospitalized, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Children are now more susceptible to the virus after more adults have been vaccinated and the delta variant has taken hold in the country and state, Texas Medical Association President Linda Villarreal said.

In Texas, 13.2 percent of all children are fully vaccinated and 16.6 percent have received at least one dose, according to the Mayo Clinic. But children younger than 12 are still ineligible to get the shot, awaiting the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization. 

Villarreal, who is also an internal medicine doctor, emphasized that masking is “the only way we can protect our children” who are younger than 12 from infections in classrooms. 

"I expect that if those school districts mandate mask wearing, there will still be some that will challenge it," she said. “If those school districts are not mandating masks, there will be an increase in the potential infections."

"If there are more than two or three kids in a classroom that are not masked and not vaccinated, then we're going to see a skyrocketing" infection rate among children, she added.

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