Texas school COVID-19 cases: How those with mask mandates compare to those without

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – Weekdays for Amy Grant and her 7-year-old daughter don’t consist of the typical drop off and pick up from school routine.

That’s because Grant’s daughter is attending school online, a choice their family made due to their district’s policy to not require masks, following Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order GA-38, which prohibits government entities from mandating face coverings.

“I feel like my daughter has lost valuable education that would not have happened if we had a mask mandate. I had to hire someone to help me with my 7-year-old daughter so that she can attend her online school and I can continue to provide for our family,” Grant said.

While Grant’s district isn’t mandating masks, 102 independent school districts across Texas are defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order by requiring its students and staff members to wear masks — that’s out of more than 1,200 districts in the state

Six of the 10 largest school districts in Texas are among those that currently have mask mandates in place

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KXAN previously analyzed COVID-19 case numbers across 20 Central Texas school districts and found students and staff in Central Texas school districts with mask mandates had fewer COVID-19 cases.

KXAN looked further into the matter and analyzed COVID-19 cases across the 10 largest school districts in Texas to see if there was a correlation between mask mandates and the number of student and staff cases since August 2021.

KXAN’s analysis found the rate of COVID-19 cases among students to be the most significant difference among districts that currently require masks.

The six districts with mask mandates had a total average rate of 1.8% student cases, compared to 3.5% among the four districts without.

While the total combined average of COVID-19 cases across the six districts requiring masks was significantly lower, KXAN found that not all the districts requiring masks had the lowest rate of cases.

The top five districts with the lowest percentage of cases per capita require students and staff to wear masks. However, three districts without mask mandates (Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Katy ISD and Fort Worth ISD) had a lower percentage of cases than North East ISD, which does require masks.

Overall, Austin ISD had the lowest total rate of COVID-19 cases among its student and staff population, while Fort Bend ISD had the highest rate of cases across the 10 largest districts.

Grant says she feels strongly that masks should be required in public schools with medical exemptions.

“Research from reputable medical and scientific organizations overwhelmingly support masking as vital to a layered approach in the reduction of COVID transmission,” she said. “This is a public health issue, not a political one.”

Legal Ramifications

The ongoing controversy over GA-38 and whether school districts decide to comply or defy the order has led to numerous lawsuits from those who support and oppose the order.

According to GA-38, any local government entity or official that fails to comply with the order is subject to a fine up to $1,000.

However, in the two months since GA-38 was issued, more than a dozen school districts in Texas are facing much more.

Currently, the Texas Attorney General’s Office is in active litigation or has filed lawsuits against 15 districts across Texas regarding the enforcement of GA-38, including Dallas ISD and two Central Texas school districts.

The remaining districts currently defying the order received letters of non-compliance from the Attorney General of Texas, which states, “You will rescind your local policy requiring masks in public schools or, alternatively, not enforce it pending the Supreme Court’s disposition of the cases before it involving this issue. Otherwise, you will face legal action taken by my office to enforce the Governor’s order and protect the rule of law.”

In addition to the lawsuits filed by the Attorney General’s office, numerous lawsuits related to GA-38 have been filed against Gov. Abbott, citing the order to be “unconstitutional, and a threat to public health and safety.”

Austin ISD, the district with the lowest number of cases per capita in Central Texas, is among the several parties challenging GA-38’s legality.

Austin ISD explained in a statement it is “arguing that executive orders cannot suspend, amend, or revoke statutes granting local control to school district management, which is vested in school districts by statute.”

A Travis County District Court sided with the school districts at the end of August and called Abbott’s order “unlawful.” The case is now before Texas’ Third Court of Appeals, with a decision due in October. Austin ISD says, “As of now, a court with competent jurisdiction over AISD has upheld its mask mandate; so, we are operating fully within the law.”

KXAN reached out to each these top 10 school districts and asked about its official stance regarding GA-38 and the factors it considered when determining whether masks would be required.

Thus far, KXAN has received responses from Austin ISD, Northside ISD and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD.

Austin ISD stated it made the decision to mandate masks because “Masks work. We know that because they worked last year and they’re working now.”

In regard to GA-38, Northside ISD, which also requires masks, stated:

Our Board has the authority and obligation to make local decisions regarding the safety of its students and employees and believes that having the ability to mandate masks will help with the ultimate goal of providing in-person instruction in a safe and effective manner. It is our intent to avoid situations, as seen in other school districts, where high numbers of confirmed COVID cases or high transmission rates have forced school closures. As such, our Board has mandated the use of masks for the safety and wellbeing of students and employees in Northside ISD.

Cypress-Fairbanks provided KXAN a link the health and safety protocols on its website, and said masks are encouraged but not required.

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