On July 29, 2021 Governor Abbot issued Executive Order GA-38. This executive order states, “No governmental entity, including a county, city, school district, and public health authority, and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering.” It further states that, “the imposition of any such face-covering requirement by a local governmental entity or official constitutes a “failure to comply with” this executive order that is subject to a fine up to $1,000.” Governor Abbott has caused a firestorm within the state with this order. Elementary age students currently do not have access to the vaccine and with the new school year in session, the positivity rate has skyrocketed in children’s cases.
The new COVID-19 Delta variant is raging through the US and school districts were put to the test once again on how to keep their doors open and keep students and staff safe. Student cases have risen within the first couple of weeks of school, and hospitals continue to see influx of patients. Intensive Care beds are once again becoming scarce. The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine has helped ease some folks, but the drawback to this is the current vaccines available are only approved for the age groups of 12 and up. When school started last year, school districts were allowed to require masks and a virtual school option with no fine or threat of losing state funding. The Governor and the Attorney General have threatened to sue those districts who implement a mask mandate. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) had recently stated that they would not issue public guidance on this, but retracted when new guidance was issued on September 17, 2021 to align with GA-38. This alignment does not help protect our students, staff or community at-large. School districts should be entitled to local control especially when their area is facing a high number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations. Health experts believe that universal masking is a significant approach to curb the spread amongst unvaccinated individuals.
Urgency: To defy or not to defy?
The Governor of Texas has placed a huge burden on school districts as they strive to keep their students and staff safe. This order has caused a shortage in teachers, substitute teachers and bus drivers, causing a strain on district operations. Several school districts have defied the Governor’s Executive Order creating a fight between the State of Texas, parents and school districts.
The big urban area school districts have led the charge in defying the Governor’s Executive order. Houston, Dallas, and Ft. Worth sued the Governor over the order. Elgin ISD, located in Central Texas, has also joined the fight and is one of the many school districts that has been sued for implementing a mask mandate. Jodi Duron, Elgin ISD Superintendent, stated, “The reason we felt it was necessary to mandate masks, in a nutshell: Because, kids.”
The Attorney General has created and published a list on their website displaying the school districts that are non compliant. A total of 15 school districts have been sued and are pushing back. Some districts did not even have a mask mandate and were sued anyway. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) isn't even enforcing the executive order.
This issue has caused outrage for school district board members. School Board members are facing heated arguments and threats from parents and community members. At school board meetings, parents are getting arrested and meetings are being cut short due to disruptions. While everyone is getting questioned for their stance, one Central Texas school board president resigned and walked out of the board meeting because he did not agree with the school district implementing and keeping the mask mandate and questioned the ethics of the other board members.
Help on the Horizon?
On September 21st, the U.S. The Department of Education opened up an investigation on the Governor's Executive Order. The Office of Civil Rights will investigate whether or not this order is violating federal law that prevents disabled students from returning to in-person classes. The letter sent to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) states, "OCR is concerned that Texas’s restriction on schools and school districts from putting masking requirements in place may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19," The Education Department also opened up similar investigations in other Republican lead states.
This announcement has many applauding the federal government.