Texas drops mask mandate ban enforcement in public schools

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Enforcement in the state’s public school systems of Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates has been dropped, for now, the Texas Education Agency said Thursday.

In a public health guidance letter, the TEA said enforcement was being dropped because of ongoing court challenges to the ban. The letter said the new guidance is effective immediately and further guidance will be issued once the litigations are resolved.

The letter recommends public school systems consult local public health officials and legal counsel before making final decisions. It also requires districts to notify their teachers, staff members and families if a test confirms a COVID-19 case in a classroom or extracurricular activity. The state previously only recommended such notification.

In an emergency order issued last month, Abbott reiterated his ban on mask mandates by any government entity, although federal agencies have mandated masks in their facilities. The governor and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have said they would sue any entity that does not comply with the emergency order. No such lawsuit has been filed. The Texas Supreme Court has upheld the ban, but that hasn’t stopped dozens of entities from imposing mask mandates.

The TEA guidance was issued in the wake of multiple court challenges mounted by parents, advocates for disabled children and local governments and school boards. Seven counties and 48 school districts have implemented mask mandates, Abbott’s ban notwithstanding. A state district court judge also has granted restraining orders to Harris County and several South Texas school districts that allow those entities to proceed with mask mandates. Another state district judge issued an order Thursday that allows Fort Bend County, which adjoins Harris County, to order mask-wearing in county buildings.

As of Aug. 8, the most recent total available from the Texas Department of State Health Services, 829 students and 872 staff members had tested positive for Covid-19. On Monday, the Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District in West Texas closed its schools for two weeks so students and staff could quarantine due to Covid-19.

The push for masking and social distancing came as the number of Covid-19 cases continued to soar across Texas, largely because of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. The rolling seven-day average of daily new cases in Texas was 16,000 on Tuesday, compared to 1,495 on June 30, according to Johns Hopkins University research data. Texas Covid-19 hospitalizations have reached levels not seen since late January with 12,705 hospitalized on Wednesday, state health officials reported.

As hospitals beds fill, especially in intensive care units, Abbott directed the Texas Department of State Health Services to use staffing agencies to import medical personnel from out-of-state to supplement the COVID-19 operations of Texas health care facilities. He stuck to his mask-mandate ban, nonetheless.

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