While Texas Gov. Greg Abbott deals with his own positive COVID-19 diagnosis, he’s still holding to his executive order against counties, cities, and school districts within the state from issuing a mask mandate. There’s been pushback from those entities, some issuing mask mandates in defiance of the governor, and now the federal government is getting involved by siding with school districts.
As the Texas Tribune noted, “A chaotic and confusing patchwork of mask mandates has cropped up across Texas as state officials and local governments duke it out in court and COVID-19 pummels the state.”
According to the article, Dallas County issued “the most wide-ranging mask mandate in the state—covering public schools, colleges, businesses, and many government buildings.” But neighboring Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, hasn’t issued any mask mandates.
Austin entities like the Austin Independent School District and Austin Community College are requiring masks within their schools, whereas the University of Texas at Austin, considered to be state property, is exempt from Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s mask mandate.
Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, has a K-12 mask mandate, with the University of Texas at San Antonio only recommending masks on campus. Bexar County officials decided to keep its mandate to K-12 students—a move intended to give state officials challenging the order in court fewer opportunities to strike it down.
“We restricted it because we didn’t want to overreach and have another reason [for the state] to knock down our order,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.
One Texas school district, the Paris Independent School District, has taken the innovative approach of making face coverings part of the dress code, indirectly implementing their own mask mandate as a result. “The Board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues, and therefore has amended the PISD dress code to protect our students and employees,” the district said of its policy, according to NBC News.
That policy states, “For health reasons, masks are required for all employees and students to mitigate flu, cold, pandemic, and any other communicable diseases,” and the Paris ISD board passed it by a 5-1 margin.
According to the Paris News, Trustee Clifton Fendley casting the dissenting vote, saying that while he wasn’t against masks as a mitigation measure, “he believed the district was using a loophole to circumvent Abbott’s anti-mask mandate, and he believed that was against the board’s oath of office.”
The vote led one parent, Joshua Vorron, to yell “Shame on you” as he left the board meeting. During the public comment portion of the meeting, he alleged that his child “suffered mental health consequences from complying with last school year’s state mask mandate.”
But Dr. Amanda Green, who is the Paris Regional Medical Center’s chief medical officer and the mother of two Paris ISD students, testified that the local hospital had 29 COVID-19 patients as of Aug. 17, running out of ventilators the day before and requiring staff to procure more.
The Biden Administration indicated it would step into the debate, with the Education Department prepared to “use its broad powers—including taking possible legal action—to deter states from barring universal masking in classrooms,” according to the New York Times.
“Unfortunately, as you’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures—that is, children wearing masks in school—into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said from the White House on Aug. 18. “We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”
Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona intends to deploy the Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm to investigate states that don’t allow masking.
The Times article also noted, “The administration will also send letters to six states—Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah—admonishing governors’ efforts to ban universal masking in schools.”
That follows letters sent last week to Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “reminding them that districts had both the funding and the discretion to implement safety measures that the CDC recommended for schools. The secretary also made it clear that he supported district leaders who defied the governors’ orders.”