Gov. Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in local public schools blocked by Travis County district judge

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group of Central Texas parents helped win a temporary restraining order against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that bans governmental entities and local officials from issuing mask mandates in public schools.

Travis County District Court Judge Jan Soifer granted the temporary restraining order Friday afternoon, allowing for local mask mandates to be enforced.

Parents Shanetra Miles-Fowler of Manor Independent School District, Elias Ponvert of Pflugerville Independent School District and Kim Taylor of Eanes Independent School District signed on the lawsuit as intervenors, joining plaintiff La Joya Independent School District in Hidalgo County.

“One of my sons is immunocompromised. So it would be possibly deadly for him if he contracted the virus,” Miles-Fowler said.

The parents and La Joya ISD demanded a declaratory judgment “on the grounds that Gov. Abbott has no authority under the Texas Disaster Act to prevent school districts from adopting mask mandates,” according to the lawsuit.

They are parents of children who are under 12 years old and ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Their children also attend public school in two Travis County school districts (PfISD and EISD) that do not have mask mandates for students, staff or visitors at this time, although Austin-Travis County ordered masks be required in public schools earlier this week.

“We intervened in this lawsuit, because we wanted to make sure Travis County area school districts are protected by the county judge’s recent order about safety precautions and mask measures,” said attorney Mike Siegel who is representing the three parents. “[The lawsuit] kind of gets at this core issue of what is Greg Abbott’s authority under the disaster act? And essentially, can he do things under the disaster act that actually doesn’t protect Texans, but make it more dangerous for Texans, in particular children who are going to school?”

Lawyers told KXAN the temporary restraining order will be signed tomorrow. That is when KXAN will obtain the official language of the order.

“What we’ve asked for is the [temporary restraining] order applies to Travis County in addition to the South Texas Rio Grande Valley counties, in addition to Harris County,” said Siegel. “So hopefully this is going to provide blanket coverage, because there are also Round Rock parents in Travis County who were interested in being protected.”

In the hearing Friday, an attorney from the Texas Attorney General’s Office countered the parents’ argument, saying school control is limited by state law.

“Schools certainly have some inherent authority to control their environments, but that inherent authority is not exclusive, and it is not unlimited,” said Benjamin Dower, with the AG’s office.

Lawyers said this temporary restraining order is valid for 10 days as they seek a longer injunction. The hearing for that will be in late August.

“What’s likely going to happen is the state of Texas is going to start filing appeals to bring these up to the courts of appeal, and eventually the Texas Supreme Court. So this is a big legal battle,” Siegel explained.

KXAN has reached out to the governor’s office for a response to the order. We also reached out to Manor, Pflugerville and Eanes ISDs.

So far we have heard back from Eanes ISD, which said, “We have not received anything at this time. If we do, we will review and determine next steps.”

Manor ISD said in a statement Friday evening, “To consider the desires of our community and staff, and in conjunction with the Austin/Travis County Health Authorities, we are implementing a mask mandate in all facilities and transportation throughout Manor ISD, effective Monday, August 16, 2021.” 

Manor ISD said it surveyed parents and staff on face coverings, and about 85% of them were for wearing masks.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown issued a statement on the district judge’s action, saying it reaffirms their position that Abbott’s order is overreaching and limits the power of local officials and health authorities.

“This is why I issued additional orders early on protecting our school children and our workforce. It is my hope that the Governor understands that my fight is against COVID-19 and not against him. As I noted the other day, his threats of legal action are nothing compared to the threat of children getting sick and dying,” Brown said, in part.

Across Texas

Also on Friday, an appeals court in San Antonio tossed out Abbott’s appeal to shut down a Bexar County order mandating masks in public schools there, upholding the local health authority’s wishes, according to the Texas Tribune.

Abbott was trying to overturn a lower court ruling that allowed the local mask mandate to stay in place.

Another appeals court in Dallas did the same thing and sided with local orders requiring masks in public schools, universities and businesses.

The Texas Tribune said Abbott is likely to take the matter up in Texas Supreme Court.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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