Multiple Texas counties, ISDs fighting Gov. Abbott's mask mandate ban
Northside High School senior Ana Angeles talks about her concern about returning to school in person while standing beside U.S. Rep. Al Green on August 11, 2021. Lucio Vasquez, Houston Public Media.

The number of Texas counties and schools districts, along with scores of community members and grassroots organizations pushing back against Gov. Greg Abbott’s stance to ban a state mask mandate even in the face of an alarming rise in state COVID-19 cases due it large part to the Delta variant is growing by the hour.

HISD’s new superintendent, Millard House III, recently stated that he will implement a mask mandate for students in the state’s largest school district. Katy ISD and Harmony Schools have made similar declarations, all citing the need to protect the health of the students and adult professionals in their charge, especially with state hospitals on the brink of running out of beds to service the rising numbers of individuals stricken with the virus.

Here are a few articles highlighting Texas counties and citizen coalitions willing to face the wrath of Abbott in order to protect their citizens:

Community Members Push For Mask Mandates In Houston-Area School Districts

U.S. Rep. Al Green holds a sign that reads “WE DEMAND SCHOOL SAFETY” during a rally outside of HISD’s Hattie Mae White administrative building on August 11, 2021. Lucio Vasquez, Houston Public Media.

Parents, teachers, students, and staffers on Wednesday called on school districts across the region to follow Houston ISD’s lead by implementing a mask mandate for all area schools, buses, and district facilities.

The group rallied outside HISD’s Hattie Mae White administrative building, where members of Cypress-Fairbanks and Aldine ISDs praised Houston district leaders, who were expected to pass the mandate Thursday.

Aly Fitzpatrick, the mother of twins entering second grade in the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, criticized her district’s failure to enforce a similar mandate.

Without it, Fitzpatrick said, children under 12 — who cannot be vaccinated— are left unprotected. Fitzpatrick added that the lack of a mandate would also create unnecessary social tension at school.

“It pits children who wear masks, against children who aren’t wearing masks, because the adults in the room won’t do their job,” she said.

Leslie Francis, a spokesperson for Cy-Fair ISD, said the district was unable to implement a mask mandate due to legal restrictions.

“Per Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order, face masks cannot be mandated; face masks are optional for all CFISD students and staff,” Francis wrote in an email to Houston Public Media.

Francis pointed to Cy-Fair’s Lead Safely Plan, updated on Monday, which now includes a temporary virtual learning option, but no mask mandate or contact tracing plan.

In May, Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting all government entities – including public schools – from mandating masks.

“Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities,” the Governor said at the time.

But last week, HISD Superintendent Millard House II announced plans to implement a mask mandate for all district facilities for the upcoming school year.

The Houston Board of Education will vote on the measure Thursday. House said on Wednesday’s Town Square that his proposed mask mandate will be implemented regardless of the outcome, since the board would be voting on a “resolution of support,” and not the implementation of the mandate.

The latest Texas Education Agency’s guidelines, updated last week, do not require Texas public schools to inform parents when positive cases of COVID-19 occur at their students’ campus. TEA guidelines also state that schools are not required to conduct tracing following a student infection.

School districts across the state including Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas ISD have defied the Governor’s orders, announcing their plans to implement their own mandate.

Beyond HISD, however, no other Houston-area school district has announced plans to implement a mask mandate. Organizers say they hope their increased pressure – and HISD’s recent action – will encourage the remaining Houston-area school districts to adopt mask mandates across all schools.

Candis Houston, President of Aldine American Federation of Teachers, who taught business for 16 years in the Aldine school district, said Aldine ISD’s mask “recommendation” is not enough. She says she hopes HISD’s action will inspire other districts to adopt similar measures.

“We hope HISD’s Board of Trustees approve it because what we know is other school districts tend to follow the lead of HISD,” Houston said.

In an email, Aldine chief of staff Sheleah D. Reed said the district agreed that masks were important, but said the district would not issue a mandate, instead saying it would be “strongly recommending” masks in compliance with Abbott’s directive.

Houston-area health officials have reported increased rates of COVID-related hospitalization, with ICUs reaching full or close-to-full capacity, as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread. And officials warn that with the reopening of schools and return of in-person learning, those infection rates will likely continue to surge.

Ana Angeles, a rising senior at Northside High School, said that without a mask mandate, she worries about the health of family members with weakened immune systems.

“Since we have no option but to go in person, we have to do the best we can to prevent spreading the delta variant,” Angeles said.

The rally-goers were joined by U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who said Abbott should not “stand in the way of saving lives.”

“We are not here to ask, we are not here to beseech, we are not here to appeal, we are here to demand that masks be worn, not just in this school district, but in all 254 counties,” Green said. “If we fail to do so, we are failing the future.”

Harris County Leaders OK Legal Action Against Gov. Greg Abbott Over Mask Mandate Ban

Lina Hidalgo at a vaccination site in Spring Branch, on April 1, 2021. Lucio Vasquez, Houston Public Media.

Harris County leaders on Tuesday approved the county attorney’s request to take legal action against the state of Texas over Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders banning mask and vaccine mandates.

The measure passed at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting on a 3-2 party line vote, with both Republican commissioners voting no. The decision came after an hour-long executive session, closed to the public.

The vote gives County Attorney Christian Menefee the authority to challenge Abbott’s executive order either in a standalone lawsuit or in a friend of the court brief to a lawsuit filed by another jurisdiction. On Tuesday, judges in San Antonio and Dallas granted temporary restraining orders on Abbott’s mandate bans, allowing local officials to move forward with their own mask mandates.

It was unclear whether or how the county attorney would take action. Menefee told Houston Public Media on Monday that options included suing the state directly or joining a lawsuit filed by another city or county.

“Our number one goal is not to start a dispute with the state, but instead to be able to keep people safe and not be prohibited from doing so by executive orders,” Menefee said.

Judge In Fort Bend County Issues Restraining Order Against Gov. Abbott’s Mask, Vaccine Mandate Ban

Outside the Fort Bend County Courthouse on Aug. 28, 2020. Lucio Vasquez, Houston Public Media.

A judge in Fort Bend County Wednesday evening granted county officials a temporary restraining order against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask and vaccine mandates, allowing for the county to implement their own mandate.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George said the decision to file the lawsuit against the state was motivated by his concern for the safety of children and employees within the county.

“For too long, our hands have been tied from implementing public health measures to protect the health and safety of our residents,” George said.

Fort Bend County Attorney Bridgette Smith-Lawson said Abbott’s orders would force county officials to ignore the suffering of Fort Bend County residents.

“We want to take back the authority and control of the county so that we can make decisions that will be in light and in tandem with the medical advice, so that we can save lives,” she said.

Fort Bend County commissioners discussed the lawsuit during a 3 p.m. closed session, according to Lawson.

The county joins a growing list of local municipalities pushing back against Abbott’s orders. San Antonio and Dallas were granted temporary restraining orders against Abbott’s mandate bans on Tuesday. Later that day, Harris County commissioners approved a request from County Attorney Christian Menefee to take legal action against the state of Texas.

In addition to the lawsuit, the judge also raised the county’s COVID-19 threat level from “orange” to “red,” due to the increase of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant.

George said he will implement a mask mandate within county buildings for employees and visitors — the mandate will also include public schools within the county.

Fort Bend County Health and Human Services director Jacqueline Minter said the county’s COVID-19 case count has dramatically increased over the past month, causing the region’s hospitals to struggle under the weight.

“We’ve had sustained and substantial increases, resulting in triple the daily average that we had one month ago,” she said.

Last week, the number of reported cases in the county reached almost 300 per day on average, according to Minter, who added that she expected this week to reach even higher.

Minter also said only five operational ICU beds were available at Fort Bend County hospitals over the weekend. The county has about 800,000 residents.

As of Wednesday, 174 COVID-19 patients occupied general hospital beds in Fort Bend County, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. That’s nearly four times higher than it was a month ago. Nearly 68% of Fort Bend County residents have been fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Judge George said he and other county officials would do what is necessary in order to protect the county’s residents — including taking the governor to court.

“We are taking this action to stand up and…do the right thing, to protect our children, our educators, our employees, and all members of our community,” he said.

Texas Judges Temporarily Allow Officials In Bexar And Dallas Counties To Issue Mask Mandates, Despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s Ban

Ott Elementary in San Antonio. Allie Goulding, Texas Tribune

Two separate state district judges granted local authorities in Dallas and Bexar counties temporary power to issue mask mandates on Tuesday, in major rebukes to Gov. Greg Abbott‘s efforts to ban local mask orders across Texas.

The leaders of the two counties had both asked the court to grant them the authority as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge statewide, and lawyers for both jurisdictions made their cases in simultaneous hearings Tuesday afternoon. In San Antonio, Judge Antonia Arteaga granted the local officials a temporary restraining order blocking Abbott’s action. Hours later, Judge Tonya Parker did the same in Dallas.

Soon after, Dr. Junda Woo, medical director of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District, and San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh announced that face masks will be required inside Bexar County public schools and San Antonio city facilities.

​”The pandemic has shown us the importance of in-person learning, but with the highly contagious delta variant now widespread in San Antonio, schools need every tool at their disposal to stay open safely,” Woo said in a statement. “Those tools include universal masking.”

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, meanwhile, said on Twitter that he would “get feedback from health, education and business leaders tonight and in the morning with the anticipation of issuing an emergency order tomorrow.”

Both judges cited public health needs in their decisions. Arteaga said she did not take her decision lightly. She cited the start of the school year and public guidance given by Woo concerning the need for masks in public schools as the highly contagious delta variant contributes to a surge in coronavirus cases across the state. Parker, meanwhile, wrote that “Judge Jenkins cannot be precluded from implementing the mitigation strategies he believes are sound, reliable, and backed by scientific evidence.”

“The citizens of Dallas County have and will continue to be damaged and injured by Governor Abbott’s conduct,” Parker’s order said.

Both decisions are temporary. Arteaga’s is pending a hearing on Monday. Parker’s decision will remain in place until Aug. 24, also pending a hearing.

“For now, we’re going to take a victory lap, we’re very happy with the result that we got today,” said Joe Gonzales, Bexar County District Attorney, during a news conference on Tuesday.

The San Antonio officials’ directives also stated that parents should be notified if a student has been in close contact with an individual on campus who tested positive for COVID-19. They implore vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals to take appropriate quarantine measures following the contact.

In a statement after the San Antonio decision, Abbott’s office said they believed the city and county’s challenge to Abbott’s order will not stand.

“Governor Abbott’s resolve to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans has not wavered,” said Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Abbott’s office. “There have been dozens of legal challenges to the Governor’s executive orders—all of which have been upheld in the end. We expect a similar outcome when the San Antonio trial court’s decision is reviewed by the appellate courts.”

The rulings came shortly after the city of San Antonio and Bexar County sued Abbott on Tuesday morning over his May executive order blocking local officials and school districts from enforcing mask mandates.

City and county officials argued in their lawsuit that Abbott’s order gets in the way of them requiring masks be worn by city and county employees as well as visitors to city and county facilities.

Jenkins’s filing came on Monday and accused Abbott of threatening lives, exceeding his authority and illegally overruling local officials’ ability to enact measures like mask mandates. Such measures are well within city and county leaders’ powers to fight an “imminent threat to public safety,” Jenkins’ suit says, and Abbott doesn’t have the power to say otherwise.

In a statement made ahead of the ruling, the city of San Antonio said if granted the temporary order it “will immediately issue an order requiring masks in public schools and requiring quarantine if an unvaccinated student is determined to be in close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual.”

Recently, the Texas Education Agency released guidance saying school districts are not required to conduct contact tracing. Despite guidance from TEA and Abbott’s executive order, which pull back preventive measures against the coronavirus, districts from metro areas such as Houston, Dallas and Austin have emphasized they will work to include safety mandates as part of their back-to-school plans. And on Tuesday night, the Fort Worth school district announced it would require masks inside schools, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

During Tuesday’s Bexar County hearing, William Christian, an attorney representing the city, argued that under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, Abbott does not have the latitude to override city and county mask mandates.

“We need to impose this mask mandate now — not Monday, not the week after that, now,” Christian said.

Kimberly Gdula, an assistant state attorney general, said the local officials who sued didn’t demonstrate harm.

“They are not asking the court for relief that preserves the status quo,” Gdula said, citing an appeals court’s decision in 2020 that halted El Paso County’s shutdown on nonessential business. Local restaurant owners and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the county, saying its order went against a state executive order that limited restrictions on business.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, commended local leaders on Tuesday for their actions against Abbott.

“If Gov. Abbott won’t protect San Antonio children, local leaders will do the right thing for our student’s health and safety,” Castro wrote on Twitter.

In Bexar County, almost 50% of residents are fully vaccinated. However, vaccines have not been approved for children under 12 years of age, presenting a worry for officials who say that’s all the more reason why masks are needed in schools. COVID-19 cases have again surged in the state, with hospitalizations reaching levels not seen since February. The state’s positivity rate, which measures how prevalent the virus is in Texas, was at 18.1% as of Sunday, above the 10% threshold that federal guidance identifies as a “red zone” for states.

Ovidia Molina, Texas State Teachers Association president, said in a statement that the ruling was a correct one, with it putting the safety of students, educators and community members first. The organization is also once again calling on Abbott to withdraw his executive order.

“It is important for students and educators to return to the classroom, but they must do so with safety precautions because the pandemic is still dangerous,” Molina said.

Hank Bostwick, Southern Center for Child Advocacy volunteer coordinator, said the ruling is a positive step to taking down the governor’s order. His organization also filed a lawsuit against Abbott on Sunday and will not withdraw it in an effort to keep mounting pressure on Abbott. He called the ruling a win for Texas children and a sign of relief for parents.

“This is excellent,” Bostwick said. “It doesn’t matter who wins in this situation, if one lawsuit works then all of the children of Texas benefit.”