September 19, 2021

Texas’ four largest counties now require masks in schools as battle over mandates grows

13 min read

State’s four most populous counties now have school mask mandates after Harris County issues new order

Aug. 12, 2021 at 5:32 p.m.

Mask-wearing in public schools is now mandatory in all four of Texas’ most populous counties as officials try to prevent the dangerous delta variant from infecting school children too young to get vaccinated.

Harris County became the latest county Thursday afternoon to require mask-wearing in schools in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order forbidding cities, counties and school districts from enacting their own mask mandates.

Public schools, private schools that don’t have a religious affiliation and child care centers must require students, teachers and anyone else inside their facilities to don masks, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told local superintendents in a letter Thursday — citing an order by Harris County Public Health.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote.

Harris County joins Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties — where officials enacted orders this week requiring masks in public schools.

The new mandate from Harris County comes hours after its county attorney sued Abbott to win greater local control over the pandemic response, alleging the governor overstepped his bounds — a legal strategy that has led to temporary wins for Dallas and Bexar officials who sought to regain some power to re-enact mask mandates. — Joshua Fechter

Harris County sues Gov. Greg Abbott, seeking right to order mask-wearing

Aug. 12, 2021 at 2:40 p.m.

In the latest challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s COVID-19 orders, Harris County sued Abbott Thursday for the right to mandate mask-wearing in the state’s most populous county.

Abbott “has repeatedly misused his authority under Texas disaster laws,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “The current wave of the delta variant presents a real and imminent threat to our most vulnerable populations, and local officials need to be able to respond to this crisis.”

A growing number of cities, counties and school districts this week have passed mask requirements for local schools and businesses despite Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates statewide.

The Harris lawsuit comes after a string of temporary legal victories for officials in Dallas and Bexar counties, who sought to take back the authority to mandate masks — a power they had earlier in the pandemic before Abbott took it away.

State district judges in both counties temporarily blocked Abbott’s ability to enforce his order regarding masks — clearing the way for officials to mandate mask-wearing in public schools and many local government buildings. In Dallas County, child care centers and businesses must also require employees and customers to wear masks under County Judge Clay Jenkins’ order.

On Wednesday, Travis County and the city of Austin ordered masks to be worn in public schools there.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have vowed to take any government official who violates Abbott’s order to court. They asked the 5th Court of Appeals on Wednesday to overturn the state district judge’s decision that allowed Jenkins’ order. — Joshua Fechter

Masks now required at all Dallas public universities and community colleges

Aug. 12, 2021 at 5:52 p.m.

The growing movement to require masks in public schools in Texas’ four largest urban areas is expanding to college campuses.

Dallas’ public universities and community colleges now must require students, faculty, staff and visitors to wear masks while indoors at their campuses, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Thursday.

Jenkins expanded his order — which also applies to public K-12 schools and businesses — hours after Dallas College said it would reinstate mandatory mask-wearing on its campus. — Joshua Fechter

Dallas College reinstates campus mask requirement

Aug. 12, 2021 at 3:27 p.m.

Dallas College, a public community college in Texas’ third largest city, has reinstated a mandatory mask requirement for all employees, students and visitors on campus amid surging COVID-19 cases in the state.

The announcement, posted Thursday afternoon on the college’s website and social media, comes two days after a Dallas judge granted a temporary restraining order allowing Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins to issue a mask mandate despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such directives across the state.

Dallas College did not immediately answer questions as to whether this change is because the temporary restraining order is in place.

Most colleges and universities across Texas have encouraged students to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated, but have repeatedly said they cannot require masks or vaccines due to Abbott’s executive order. The vast majority of schools are moving forward with plans to fully reopen campus this fall with mostly in-person classes as classes begin over the next few weeks.

The University of Texas at San Antonio was one of the first to change its fall plans when it announced Wednesday that most classes would shift online for the first three weeks of the semester due to rising cases. A judge also granted Bexar County, where UT-San Antonio is located, a temporary restraining order allowing county officials to implement a mask mandate. But UT-San Antonio said the order did not apply to campus. The University of Texas at Austin also said the recent mask order in Austin does not apply to campus since it is state property, according to The Daily Texan. UT-Austin did not respond to a request for confirmation. — Kate McGee

Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton want to block Dallas County mask mandate

Aug. 11, 2021 at 6:36 p.m.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are asking Texas’ 5th Court of Appeals to block Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ newly issued mask mandate, they announced in a joint press release.

The release said Jenkins’ mandate violates the governor’s executive order banning local officials from requiring residents to wear masks. It cited the Texas Disaster Act, which grants the governor emergency powers during a disaster, and said the office has filed a petition in the appeals court to revoke Jenkins’ mandate.

“Attention-grabbing judges and mayors have defied executive orders before, when the pandemic first started, and the courts ruled on our side – the law,” Paxton said in the release. “I’m confident the outcomes to any suits will side with liberty and individual choice, not mandates and government overreach.”

Earlier in the day, Jenkins announced that as of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, all public schools, child care centers and businesses in Dallas County must require face coverings. The day before, a state district judge temporarily granted him power to mandate masks in a rebuke of Abbott’s order.

Jenkins is among several local leaders to defy Abbott’s order in recent days, with officials in San Antonio and Bexar County issuing similar mandates and major school districts across the state independently declaring that they will require mask wearing. — Isabella Zou

With the delta variant spreading, Texas COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased 400% in the last month

Aug. 11, 2021 at 5:27 p.m.

The number of Texans hospitalized with COVID-19 is increasing more quickly than at any other point of the pandemic. Hospital officials say upwards of 95% of COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and they will soon be overwhelmed by the caseload. Dozens of hospitals are out of ICU beds as they struggle with historically low staffing levels and staff burnout. Gov. Greg Abbott has asked hospitals to delay nonessential procedures.

Fort Bend obtains judge’s permission to issue mask mandate

Aug. 11, 2021 at 6:55 p.m.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George has issued a mask mandate for government and school buildings, as another Texas judge grants a temporary restraining order on Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban.

“We are experiencing a health crisis emergency and I am concerned about the health and safety of our children and the hardworking employees in Fort Bend County,” George said in a statement. “How do you strip local government of the power to protect public safety? You can not play with people’s lives, and I feel that the governor’s executive order causes harm and risks the health and safety of our public employees and their families, many of whom have school-age children.”

Fort Bend joins several other local government entities who have issued new safety mandates in defiance of executive orders from Abbott banning such orders. Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties have all said they would issue their own mask orders in the past few days, while school districts like Houston ISD consider them as well.

Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Wednesday night that they are asking the Texas’ 5th Court of Appeals to block Dallas County’s new mandate. Bobby Blanchard

Austin and Travis County officials requiring masks for schools, local government facilities

Aug. 11, 2021 at 7:06 p.m.

Austin and Travis County officials ordered that people must wear face masks inside city or county facilities — and Austin public schools and public charter schools — starting Thursday, in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates.

The Austin Independent School District issued its own mask mandate Monday.

“Today’s Order to require masks in certain places is both to support Austin ISD’s decision to protect children and the city’s duty to protect its employees and the community,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement.

Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown join a growing movement of local leaders defying Abbott’s executive order that prohibits local officials from requiring residents to wear face coverings. In recent days, officials in Dallas County, San Antonio and Bexar County have issued mask mandates for residents, and major school districts around the state have announced their own mask requirements. — Isabella Zou

State Sen. José Menéndez tests positive for the coronavirus

Aug. 11, 2021 at 6:46 p.m.

State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, disclosed on Wednesday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“This morning, we learned that additional members of my family, including myself are now positive for COVID-19,” he said in a statement. “This virus is dangerous, and we have to follow scientifically proven methods to slow the spread.”

Menéndez said he and his family members are vaccinated, and called for mandates for masks and the expansion of Medicaid for all.

“These public schools are currently being prevented from enacting safeguards, we must take action so that small children like Adalisa are protected from the virus,” he said, invoking his 14-month-old granddaughter who is also sick with the coronavirus.

Medical officials have noted that while breakthrough cases for vaccinated people are occurring, vaccines are still proven to be effective at reducing the severity of the virus. — Rebekah Allen

White House looking at whether it can challenge Gov. Greg Abbott on mask mandates

Aug. 11, 2021 at 5:13 p.m.

The White House is checking to see whether it can challenge Republican governors such as Greg Abbott for banning mask mandates in their states, President Joe Biden said this week.

Despite Biden’s pleas to allow masks, some Republican governors have remained defiant. In Texas, Abbott is now facing pushback in the courts from local leaders across Texas who want to reinstate mask mandates as the delta variant sweeps through the state. Judges in Dallas and Bexar counties have temporarily granted local leaders authority to issue local orders, despite Abbott issuing an order that bans them.

When asked if he has the power to step in, according to the Houston Chronicle, Biden replied on Tuesday, “I don’t believe that I do thus far. We’re checking that.”

Asked for more information about the administration’s efforts Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “We’re looking into ways we can help the leaders at the local level who are putting public health first continue to do their jobs, keep students safe, and keep students in school.”

“That’s something our Department of Education and others are looking at,” she said. “I just don’t have anything to preview for you at this point in time.”

— Farah Eltohamy

2,500 more medical workers being deployed to Texas hospitals

Aug. 11, 2021 at 4:42 p.m.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that more than 2,500 medical workers will be deployed to Texas hospitals to help the increasing number of COVID-19 patients requiring care.

Earlier this week, Abbott ordered the Texas Department of State Health Services to utilize staffing agencies to provide out-of-state medical personnel in response to the recent coronavirus surge.

The new workers will be funded by the state through Sept. 30.

“The State of Texas is taking action to ensure that our hospitals are properly staffed and supported in the fight against COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement. “Texans can help bolster the state’s efforts to combat the virus by getting vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, and it is our best defense against the virus.”

There are currently more than 10,000 people hospitalized for the coronavirus in Texas — an increase of 2,700 over just last week. Hospitalizations are increasing faster than any point in the pandemic. Medical officials in Texas have said most patients being hospitalized are unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, Texas is struggling with historically low staffing levels, with some 23,000 unfilled jobs for registered nurses across the state, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

In July, the state told cities and counties it would not send additional health care workers to aid hospitals with the latest surge of COVID-19 patients, like it had earlier in the pandemic. Instead, state officials said, city and county leaders should dip into $10.5 billion worth of federal stimulus dollars to pay for those workers should hospitals need them. Abbott reversed course on Monday, announcing the Department of State Health Services “will be utilizing staffing agencies to provide medical personnel from out-of-state to Texas health care facilities to assist in COVID-19 operations.” — Rebekah Allen

Texas Children’s Hospital requires vaccinations for employees

Aug. 11, 2021 at 3:22 p.m.

Texas Children’s Hospital will require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, joining a handful of other major Texas hospitals with vaccination requirements for staff.

“By taking this step, we are further protecting the health of our team members, patients and community,” president and CEO Mark A. Wallace said Wednesday. “As one of the nation’s largest and top-rated children’s hospitals, it is our responsibility to take a stand and protect those who place their trust in us, many of whom are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.”

The Houston hospital will require employees, medical staff and contractors to receive their first vaccine dose by Sept. 21 and their second dose by Oct. 19 if they are receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. The hospital said exemptions will be “permitted for certain religious beliefs or medical conditions.”

In June, more than 150 employees at Houston Methodist resigned or were fired after they refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine after the hospital required it; a judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the hospital’s policy.

An increasing number of hospital systems are following suit: According to The Houston Chronicle, Baylor College of Medicine and Memorial Hermann are also implementing vaccination requirements for employees. Methodist Health System and Baylor Scott & White Health have also required vaccinations, The Dallas Morning News reported. — Allyson Waller

Dallas County judge mandates masks as coronavirus infections soar

Aug. 11, 2021 at 2:57 p.m.

Mask-wearing is now required in Dallas public schools and businesses after Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on Wednesday became the latest local official to defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask orders.

“We are all team public health and the enemy is the virus,” Jenkins said. “Right now, the enemy is winning.”

The move comes a day after a state district judge in Dallas temporarily blocked Abbott’s ability to enforce his executive order prohibiting cities, counties and school districts from requiring residents to wear masks.

Officials in San Antonio and Bexar County won a similar legal battle Tuesday — and quickly ordered school districts to require mask-wearing in schools.

Jenkins went further than other local Texas leaders have in recent weeks. As of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, all Dallas County public schools, child care centers and businesses must require mask-wearing. However, only businesses will be fined — up to $1,000 — for violating the order, Jenkins said.

The move comes as the highly contagious delta variant fills Texas hospitals with a crushing wave of COVID-19 patients, the overwhelming majority of them unvaccinated, and as hospitals struggle to find the nurses they need to treat the sick.

Jenkins said mandating masks is an attempt to give some relief to hospitals, but the best way to do that is for more people to get vaccinated.

“We’re trying to buy our hospitals some time by doing everything that we all can do to get through this,” Jenkins said.

Joshua Fechter

UT-San Antonio moves most classes online for beginning of semester

Aug. 11, 2021 at 2:57 p.m.

The University of Texas at San Antonio announced Wednesday that it is shifting most of its classes online for the first three weeks of the semester, the largest university in the state to largely reverse course from its plan to fully reopen in person as COVID-19 cases soar across Texas.

According to a statement on its website, UT-San Antonio officials said they made the change due to the delta variant of the virus already widely spreading ahead of the Labor Day holiday in early September. The university is also implementing a mandatory testing requirement for the entire university community, with details to be announced soon.

On-campus housing and other areas of the university will remain open, but in-person events will be limited to 50 people or fewer or less than 50% of a venue capacity. Campus dining will have modified hours of operation.

The announcement comes one day after a Bexar County judge issued a temporary restraining order allowing a mask mandate in public schools there. But UT-San Antonio officials said that order does not apply to a state institution such as the university.

The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston both have allowed faculty to reduce density within their in-person classes for the first two weeks of the semester with the requirement that students have at least one in-person experience per week in each course. Kate McGee

This article was originally posted on Texas’ four largest counties now require masks in schools as battle over mandates grows

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