The largest school district in Texas is among those poised to defy the governor’s ban on school mask mandates as students prepare to head back to school this month amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The Houston Independent School District board voted on the mask mandate Thursday night, though approval wasn’t required for the policy to go into effect, the district confirmed to ABC News. The board was ultimately unanimous in its support of Superintendent Millard House’s policy, with members saying it was a means to protect students and school staff and offer a consistent in-person learning experience. The first day of school is Aug. 23.
The mandate — which would require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks while in school and on district buses except while eating — goes against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring government entities in Texas, including school districts, from requiring the use of masks.
“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.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have voiced support for leaders instituting mask mandates despite the governor’s order.
“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.
Houston joins other school districts in Texas, including those in Austin, Dallas and Spring, in issuing mask mandates.
On Wednesday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins signed an order requiring masks indoors in certain public spaces, including public schools.
In response, Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said they will fight the county mask mandate in court.
“Under Executive Order GA-38, no governmental entity can require or mandate the wearing of masks,” Abbott said in a statement. “The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates. The State of Texas will continue to vigorously fight the temporary restraining order to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans.”
Statewide, the seven-day average of daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have reached their highest points since January, when Texas was emerging from its winter surge. COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by nearly 3,000 in the last week, the state health department said on Twitter Wednesday, warning that “risk of infection is very high.”
Pediatric cases have been surging in particular, with 94,000 reported in the last week, or 15% of all reported new infections, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. Also, pediatric COVID-19-related hospital admissions are at their highest level since the beginning of the pandemic.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden said he stood with officials defying state mandates barring masks in schools.
“To the mayors, school superintendents, educators, local leaders, who are standing up to the governors politicizing mask protection for our kids, thank you,” he told reporters. “Thank God that we have heroes like you. And I stand with you all, and America should as well.”