AUSTIN — School districts across Texas are likely to maintain existing face covering policies, including keeping masks optional, despite a new federal court ruling that allows for mask mandates in the state's schools.
On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that Texas’ ban on mask mandates in schools violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The decision allows Texas independent school districts to choose to implement mask mandates for in-person learning during the current school year, but many districts did not immediately take action.
Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group, filed the federal lawsuit against the governor, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, claiming the spread of COVID-19 was posing "an even greater risk for children with special health needs."
"Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital's intensive-care unit," the lawsuit said. "This includes children with conditions including, Down syndrome, organ transplants, lung conditions, heart conditions, and weakened immune systems."
Regardless of the ruling, superintendents at Mineral Wells, Huntsville and Palestine ISDs said their districts are and will remain mask-optional, and many cited low COVID case counts.
“We have not required students and staff to wear a mask this school year and currently are not planning to implement that requirement,” said PISD Superintendent Jason Marshall. “We have allowed students and staff to wear a mask this entire school year if they have chosen to do that. We have kept and continue to keep masks, as well as other PPE, at each of our campuses and facilities for students and staff if they need it.”
Commerce ISD too will keep its current policy in place, said CISD Director of Personnel and Communications Ludonna Smithers.
“Commerce ISD does not require masks in its schools and under the current pandemic status, mask use will be strictly voluntary,” Smithers said. “Parents and staff may use masks at their own discretion.”
The ruling, signed by U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, follows months of clashes between Texas and its school districts that led to several lawsuits.
When issuing the order in the spring, Gov. Greg Abbott said the state can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while “defending Texans' liberty to choose whether or not they mask up.”
"Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities," Abbott said at the time.
Some districts openly defied the governor’s order by continuing to require masks of all students, staff and visitors on school property and in buses. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton responded by suing 15 of them.
Others blurred the lines by adopting a policy that would have masks be worn after certain positive case thresholds.
For example at Corsicana ISD, masking protocols are reinstated at the elementary level for an entire class for 10 school days following the announcement of a confirmed case in that class. At the secondary level, the threshold is set at 1.5% of the population reporting positive cases.
The district also provided an “opt-out” form option for those who did not want to adhere to the policy and “are willing to assume the health risks associated with attending work or school unmasked,” according to the district’s website.
Following the federal court ruling, Paxton said via Twitter that his office will continue to challenge the decision.
Separately, the civil rights enforcement arm of the U.S. Education Department announced in September it too would look into Texas’ mask mandate ban in schools. The investigation would determine whether the ban was preventing school districts from "considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities."
On Nov. 2, a low dose version of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine received final authorization for children ages 5-11. Health care providers across the state began administering the vaccine within days.