As Mask Mandates Rage, Texas School Districts Look for Solutions

Chris O'Meara/AP

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a resurgence this summer in Texas after hospitalizations and deaths had begun dropping in January. As cases nationwide appear to be climbing fueled by the newest genetic mutation known as the Delta variant, governments are faced with the prospect of walking back freedoms that had only recently been restored to citizens.  

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took a hardline stance in July, signing an executive order that barred agencies receiving state funds from instituting policies requiring masks to be worn, which leaves the decision up to residents. The governor has maintained that emergency powers granted to the office through the 1975 Texas Disaster Act give him the power to issue the order. 

School districts in the state have been among the most vocal critics of the order, demanding that they be allowed the right to enforce health and safety measures by requiring children to wear masks while attending school in order to reduce the rapidity of the Delta variant spread. Several districts defied the governor’s order and implemented policies that require students to wear masks in school. The State Supreme Court ruled on Sunday, August 14, that school districts do not have the authority to overrule the governor’s order in requiring masks to be worn.  

On Tuesday, August 17, the Paris School District found a unique way to circumvent the order to require masks as part of the student dress code. In doing so, the district has found a legal loophole that allows the district to enforce masks without requiring the safety measure as part of the health and safety operation of the district.  

“Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority,” the District stated in a press release.  

Abbott continues to maintain that he has the statutory authority to issue the order, but that nothing in the order prevents students, teachers, or administrators from voluntarily wearing masks while on campus.  

Several school districts, including Fort Worth ISD and Dallas ISD, have decided to ignore the executive order and require all students and teachers to wear masks while in school, acknowledging that they may lose significant funding from the state as a result.  

“I cannot live with a tragedy occurring because I was afraid of the possible consequences of defying part of the governor’s order, wrote Stephanie Elizalde, Superintendent of Austin ISD in an essay for Time Magazine. “I realize, of course, that the governor’s executive order may mean that we will be fined for requiring masks. I’d rather pay money than risk a child’s life.”  

At one Texas ISD campus this week, a teacher was physically assaulted by a parent for wearing a mask while other instructors were verbally abused. Eanes ISD superintendent Tom Leonard addressed the “few sad moments” in which parents took out frustration on teachers and administrators over the mandate.  

“This type of behavior will not be tolerated in Eanes ISD,” Leonard wrote in a note to parents and staff Tuesday. “Our staff are on the front lines of this pandemic; let’s give them some space and grace. Please, I am asking everyone to be kind… do not fight mask wars in our schools.” 

Cases continue to surge statewide. Dallas County reported Tuesday a three-day total of new cases that exceeded 4,400 and four deaths. The reported cases in the state’s second-most populous county have jumped significantly with a three-day total reported July 20 of only 870 cases. Abbott’s executive order was signed on July 21.  

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