By JUAN A. LOZANO
The Associated Press
HOUSTON Some Texas cities, counties and school districts remained defiant Monday and kept in place mandates requiring students and others to wear facial coverings despite rulings a day earlier by the Texas Supreme Court halting mask mandates in two of the state’s largest counties.
But other school districts and communities rescinded their mask mandates in the wake of Sunday’s court ruling, creating confusion and frustration for some Texas parents and their children, who were returning to in person classes this week. Adding to the confusion was a court ruling Monday afternoon that upheld the mask mandate in Bexar County, where San Antonio is located. The legal battle over mask mandates in schools was taking place as one West Texas school district announced Monday it was shutting down for two weeks due to COVID-19.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a letter Monday “the Supreme Court has spoken” and any local orders that would try “to enjoin the Governor’s authority may not be enforced while the Court considers the underlying merits of these cases.” Later Monday, Paxton tweeted, “A wave of lawlessness is sweeping over Texas. I will stop it.”
Meantime, Texas health officials have requested five mortuary trailers from the federal government as COVID-19 cases continue soaring and hospitalizations reach the highest levels since January.
The orders by the state’s highest civil court — which is entirely comprised of elected Republican justices — halted mask requirements that county leaders in Dallas and San Antonio put in place as new infections soar and students begin returning to school. Texas reported 11,791 patients hospitalized with the virus Monday, the most since Jan. 28. In the past month, hospitalizations have increased by 301%.
But officials in Dallas County and Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, brushed aside the Texas high court’s order, saying their specific mask mandates had either not been struck down or a final decision on the issue had not yet been made.
The Austin school district and Harris County, where Houston is located and which is the state’s most populous county with 4.7 million residents, also said their mask mandates for schools remained in place.
Officials in San Antonio and Bexar County said the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling had little practical effect on their lawsuit as state District Judge Antonia Judge Arteaga held a hearing Monday to decide whether to grant a temporary injunction against Abbott’s order, which would put it on hold while the lawsuit goes to trial. After an all day court hearing in which various local officials and one parent testified, Arteaga granted San Antonio and Bexar County its request for a temporary injunction. The ruling was likely to be appealed by the state.
“My thoughts continue to be with those children in our schools who don’t have access to the vaccine but must attend school, coupled with the dire situation right here in Bexar County,” Arteaga said.
On Monday, the Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District announced it would close schools for two weeks starting Tuesday so students and staff could quarantine due to COVID-19. Classes had started on Aug. 10. No virtual or remote learning would be available during this quarantine. The district, located about 80 miles (129 km) south of Odessa, has about 380 students. Mask wearing was optional in the district.
“Please ensure that students are truly taking this opportunity to quarantine. This means that students and staff will quarantine only with immediate family. They should not be out and about in the community or hanging out with friends. The only way that this will work is if everyone does their part,” Superintendent Tracy Canter wrote in a letter to the community.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins tweeted Sunday night the court’s ruling “did not strike down my face mask order” but had only removed a stay that had been put in place against Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates.
“This should never be a political fight. We’re at war on behalf of moms and dads and kids against a deadly virus. I sure wish the Governor would join our side in the battle,” Jenkins said.
Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said because the Texas Supreme Court’s orders did not specifically mention his school district, his district’s mandate would remain. Most of district’s students returned to campuses on Monday.
“There’s nothing about school districts in this order. So why would I back off now,” Hinojosa told reporters Sunday. “In our community (the mask mandate is) the right thing to do.”
Hinojosa said Monday that President Joe Biden left him a voicemail expressing support for his district’s mask mandate.
During Monday’s court hearing in the San Antonio and Bexar County lawsuit, Michelle Means, a parent in Bexar County, testified on behalf of the state, telling a judge her county’s mask mandate has left her unsettled as she does not want her children to be forced to wear masks while in school.
“I agree with the governor. I am in the best position to make decisions for my family,” Means said.
While some school districts kept their mask mandates, others around the state returned to making mask-wearing optional.
On Sunday, Nueces County in South Texas had issued a mask mandate but rescinded it a few hours later following the court ruling.
A group of parents and their children demonstrated outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion in Austin on Monday to protest his executive order barring local school district control of mask mandates. The rally, sponsored by Austin Voices for Education and Youth and Austin Education, urged Abbott to return local control for public health emergency responses.
Officials from hospitals around the state say their facilities continue being overrun with COVID-19 patients again as the delta variant tears through the nation’s unvaccinated population and many don’t have enough nurses and other personnel to adequately staff intensive care unit or ICU beds.
Consequently, state health officials asked for the trailers earlier this month as a precaution, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. He said, however, that no local officials so far have reached out with needs for extra mortuary space.