Texas’ largest school district could weigh a mask mandate as soon as next week, after Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II announced Thursday he would bring the measure forward at the next Board of Education meeting.
If passed, it would likely make HISD the first school district in Texas at odds with an order from Gov. Greg Abbott banning such mandates.
House made the announcement at a Thursday evening district agenda review meeting, where he acknowledged the possibility of a conflict.
“We know that we’re going to get pushback for this,” he said during his announcement. “We know that people will be angry, some will be happy, we’re not going to be able to please everybody. But what we have to understand is, if we have an opportunity to save one life, it’s what we should be doing.”
The rule would apply to students, staff, and visitors at all schools, on buses, and inside other district facilities. It applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, the superintendent said.
The mandate would become effective if approved at a board meeting next Thursday.
Any mandate would set up a potential confrontation between the state and the newly appointed superintendent, who in May was named sole finalist for the position. He came to Houston from Tennessee, where he was head of the Clarksville-Montgomery County school system.
Abbott’s orders ban cities, counties, school districts and other local government entities from issuing mask mandates or requiring proof of vaccination.
Earlier this week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner was the first local official to officially challenge Abbott’s directive by ordering most city employees to wear masks inside city buildings, when social distancing is not possible.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on either House or Turner’s plans.
In announcing his decision, House cited the continued spread of COVID-19 in the region, and Harris County’s rising threat level.
Just hours earlier, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised the COVID-19 threat level to “red,” the highest level, indicating severe and uncontrolled spread of the virus.
As of Wednesday, the Texas Medical Center was reporting more than 300 new patients per day, a 500% increase from one month ago. New confirmed positive cases of the virus are up 2,500% in the TMC, according to hospital data.
Harris County’s positivity rate, below 5% just 23 days ago, is now above 15%.
Hidalgo said the coronavirus was no longer a “disease of the old,” with the average age of TMC patients about 20 years younger than previous waves.
Health officials blame the recent wave on the more transmissible delta variant combined with a slowing rate of vaccinations. A little more than 55% of eligible Harris County residents are fully vaccinated, according to state health data.
“Beyond the obvious need for vaccines is the need for us to band together,” Hidalgo said, “and these things go hand in hand.”