Largest school district in Texas mandates face masks - defies governor's ban

AP Photo/LM Otero, File

The board of the largest school district in Texas voted in favor of mandating the use of face masks during its meeting Thursday night. This move is in defiance of Governor Abbott’s ban on mask mandates by government entities anywhere in the state, including school districts. The Houston Independent School Board (HISD) board was unanimous in its support of the mandate. The first day of school is August 23.

This move wasn’t unexpected. There have been objections voiced by several county officials since Abbott signed the executive order banning mask mandates. Other school districts have passed similar mandates in Austin, Dallas, and Spring, which is in the Houston area. HISD has a new superintendent who faces a battle with the governor as he begins his job. Millard House says the mandate is meant to “protect students and school staff and offer a consistent in-person learning experience.”

“The last thing I want as a brand new superintendent in the largest school district in the state is any smoke or heat with the governor,” House, who officially became the superintendent of the school district in June, told Houston ABC station KTRK this week. “That’s not my intent here. My intent was solely focused on what we felt was best in Harris County and HISD.”

The mandate requires that students, staff, and visitors wear face masks inside district campuses, facilities, and while riding buses. This vote was taken just one day after Abbott said that any school district, public university, or local government official who defied his order would be taken to court. A neighboring county is taking a different approach, despite being advised by officials to issue a mask mandate.

In neighboring Fort Bend County, district officials said Thursday night they would not mandate masks, despite emergency guidance from the county health authority there recommending it is “necessary” that anyone in school buildings wear face coverings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“After consulting with our legal counsel to ensure our mitigation efforts are within the confines of the law, the District continues to highly encourage wearing masks and doing so remains optional,” district officials said in a statement. “The District continues to monitor the latest legal developments while carefully watching internal COVID-19 data and reinforcing our COVID mitigation protocols.”

The vote by HISD wasn’t necessary for the mandate to be put in place, it was a show of support for the superintendent’s proposal. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo also issued a mask mandate and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner supports her action. The county is suing the governor over his executive action.

“I commend everyone — school superintendents, and elected judges alike who are taking whatever steps are needed to protect the lives of the people they serve,” Hidalgo said on Twitter this week while announcing that the Harris County attorney was authorized to file a lawsuit challenging the governor’s order. “Protecting the community during an emergency is a duty, not an option for government leaders.”

Hidalgo also issued an order Thursday requiring that students ages 2 and up, staff, teachers and visitors at Harris County K-12 schools — which includes Houston ISD — wear masks indoors and while on school buses, regardless of vaccination status.

House is concerned about the possibility of being caught up in legal action over what he describes as keeping children safe.

“Of course if we ran into some legal action, I would not be telling the truth if I said I was not concerned,” House said. “But my hope is that everybody sees this for what it is — it is a situation around public health, and my hope is that will be the focus … and that we don’t end up in a legal fight around keeping our children safe.”

Texas Education Agency (TEA) is staying out of the conflict.

“In light of the conflict currently being resolved in the courts between executive order GA-38 and certain local orders and actions,” officials said in a statement, “TEA is refraining from issuing updated public health guidance at this time.”

Teacher unions were quick to jump in and praise the vote by the board of HISD and do some bashing of Abbott. The HISD meeting was filled to capacity by interested parents and members of the community. Many in attendance were speaking out against mask mandates in schools. A crowd of people also protested outside the building as the meeting got underway.

Thursday night, two unions in the Houston area — Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation and Houston Federation of Teachers — issued statements celebrating Houston ISD’s mandate.

“The CDC, local and state public health officials, and the entire medical community have made it clear: During the delta surge masks are vital to keeping our kids, our co-workers, and our communities safe,” said Hany Khalil, executive director of the labor union.

“But instead of listening to public health experts, Governor Greg Abbott and the TEA are playing politics with our children’s lives and blocking districts from taking common-sense measures to keep kids safe.”

All of this comes at a time that the panic button is being hit by the Houston medical community and scientists who see the spike in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant and that includes children. Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine says Houston will “pay the price” for not doing more on with masks and vaccines. He points to a rise in children being hospitalized with both COVID-19 and RSV, normally a winter virus.

It’s an unforced error. We didn’t have to get here. Had we not had the disinformation campaign, had we had more support from members of the U.S. Congress and other elected leaders, had they promoted vaccinations instead of tearing them down… and yet here we are.

The children’s hospital admissions and the pediatric ICU admissions are not all COVID. There’s also a component of other respiratory pathogens, including respiratory syncytial virus, RSV. Usually, it’s a winter virus. Maybe it’s hitting now because this winter the kids were not interacting with each other very much, so now they didn’t have immunity to RSV.

I don’t have a good rundown yet as to the proportion of hospitalizations of COVID versus RSV versus both — we’re seeing co-infections — but it’s clear that COVID is going up among kids. That really worries me.

And all of this is the warmup act. Schools are opening now across the South. Louisiana, I think, opened earlier this week with some of the parishes. Houston, Independent School District opens Aug. 23. You’re going to have a lot of other young people in close contact with each other and with teachers. I worry that’s going to be a big accelerant. So as tough as things are now, it’s going to be even worse.

He blames a lack of success in vaccination rates for the rapid rise in cases and what will be a slow decrease in cases. Doom and gloom is Hotez’s brand, so to speak, especially in social media. He battles misinformation about the virus and isn’t bashful to make political comments against those who don’t agree with his opinions. I’m not sure what else he thinks could have been done to prevent the current spike in COVID-19 cases in Houston. The elected officials have been embracing their inner authoritarian throughout the pandemic and keeping the city and county locked down as long as possible. The county judge kept Harris County at level red past the time the county opened back up. Vaccines have been readily available as supplies increased. We even receive alerts on our phones reminding us of the availability of vaccines, as well as text messages. Many retail businesses continue to ask customers to mask up.