AUSTIN (KXAN) — As children across Texas head back to school, the fight in court over mask mandates rages on between state leaders and local governments.
While the legal battle plays out over Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order which bans mask mandates by government entities — including public school districts — school boards are either choosing to defy the Governor’s executive order and require masks or keep masks optional for students and staff. Several districts have already changed their rules and requirements over the last few days.
The Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties, including their school districts, but their ruling doesn’t affect the Austin Independent School District mask mandate yet.
On Monday night, several other school districts across Texas met to talk about mask requirements and other COVID-19 safety protocols.
Elgin ISD was the first to take action and approve a mask mandate for students and staff starting on Tuesday. Officials said they made the decision after carefully considering the different local and state mask orders.
The Round Rock Board of Trustees heard from at least a dozen students and dozens of parents, during a meeting that lasted late into Monday night. The meeting agenda noted they could take “possible action” on their COVID-19 safety protocols.
“I’d like to urge you to issue a mask mandate to save our lives,” one middle school student told the Round Rock ISD board.
An incoming senior student echoed the sentiment: “A mask isn’t just about you. A mask is to protect those around you.”
Meanwhile, another student urged the board to comply with the Governor’s order and said they worried about the toll on the mental health of her classmates if masks or virtual learning persisted.
“We should be able to see each other’s smiling faces and feel comfortable returning to our learning environment,” she said.
“Please stop telling us how to raise our children,” one parent asked.
“Decisions such as these should never be made by school or government officials. You do not live in my house,” another said, and was met with applause.
Other parents took the microphone to praise the district’s decision, including Elias Ponvert — a parent who put his name on a lawsuit along with several other parents across the state and La Joya Independent School District in Hidalgo County — calling for a temporary restraining order to the executive order and allowing for local mask mandates to be enforced.
“I’m sick and tired of our state leadership treating this public health crisis like a political football,” he told the board.
As these back-and-forth debates happen all over the state, leaders at the Texas American Federation of Teachers worry that educators are getting caught in the middle.
Their president, Zeph Capo, said they are hearing from teachers in districts without mask mandates who feel a level of personal responsibility to keep kids healthy. Meanwhile, he says, teachers enforcing and upholding their districts’ chosen mask mandates are concerned they could face consequences or even from the state.
“Court decisions are literally flying back and forth on a daily basis, right now. So, the practicality of holding a classroom teacher who is simply trying to the best they can keep their kids safe, responsible for whatever decisions are made above their head is not practical in many ways — but is also completely irresponsible to do so.”
Earlier on Monday, Manor ISD announced a mask mandate, following the results of a survey showing that 85% of district families favored masking.
Philip Goetz, a teacher at Manor High School, said he was glad the district took this step, as he knows many students who may feel uneasy coming back into the classroom for the first time since last March.
“Like students walking on the surface of the moon. The classroom has become a foreign environment,” he said. “As a teacher, I’m getting to scope it out ahead of time. I’m getting to set up the playing field, set up the room, to be able to make it less foreign and more comfortable.”
He said he will do his best to meet his kids where they are at, so they can focus on their education, dreams and future careers.
“The biggest thing is when I say to the students, ‘This is not your fault’.”