Abbott’s order GA-38 officially ended mask mandates at all levels of government. It consolidated previous orders that ended local government mask mandates in gradual steps and also banned “vaccine passports” at any entities, public or private, that receive taxpayer money. Provisions of the order do not apply to nursing homes, state-supported living centers, or jails.
Despite the order, Dallas ISD, Austin ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Spring ISD, Fort Bend ISD, and Houston ISD have all instituted mask requirements on their campuses. More districts may follow.
Mask mandates in schools have remained contentious in part due to the wide range of opportunities for complication. After Abbott first rolled back local authority on masking and other activities, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) scrambled to issue guidance clarifying that it did not apply to schools. In turn, school boards voluntarily shed mask mandates piece by piece across the state. Some, meanwhile, had never required them at all.
Districts that clung to their mandates occasionally sparked controversy that led to lawsuits. Hazy language worsened tensions at other districts whose parents and even board members claimed they had been enforcing mask mandates that never existed in the first place.
Abbott eventually ended mask mandates in schools across the state in May, though his order didn’t take effect until the beginning of summer. After he lifted the mandate, COVID-19 case numbers continued to decline for the next several weeks.
The uniform, statewide approach that has defined Abbott’s COVID-19 response since then differs notably from his earlier hands-off approach that allowed superintendents, mayors, and county judges to adopt their own varied measures. His emphasis on personal responsibility rather than government force also bears little resemblance to his strategy from last July to March, when his statewide mask mandate was in effect.
While cities and counties are opting to face the governor head-on in court, school districts that have decided to buck the order are following a pattern of quiet disregard. The districts that have chosen not to comply made their decisions with no legal action and little fanfare.
Despite early concern over schools becoming pandemic hotspots — 91 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of independents believed in summer of 2020 that an in-person return would be unsafe — no significant spikes from schools arose at the beginning of the 2020-2021 year. Data strongly showed that schools were safe, a trend that persisted throughout the school year and up to summer.
By the school year’s end, standardized test results showed that early panic may have harmed students’ learning progress. Scores plunged compared to last year, and regression was worst among students that learned behind a computer instead of in classrooms.
Now, as the 2021-2022 school year kicks off, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends universal masking in K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status — a stark reversal from previous recommendations.
Further complicating the guidance is the fact that the CDC released no supporting data for its guide and previously developed guidance under the aegis of powerful national teachers’ unions who fought for virtual learning in the 2020 school year.
As some outlets have noted, public schools are a “glaring exception” to the CDC’s mask recommendations. The guidance says universal masking is only recommended in counties where the pandemic is surging but abandons that threshold for public schools, recommending that even vaccinated students and teachers wear masks in every public school in America. If the same hotspot county standard applied to schools in CDC guidance, students in low-transmission areas could attend school without masks.
Nonetheless, some see mask requirements as key to opening schools and preventing another learning slump like last year.
“As students and educators throughout Texas begin their third school year affected by COVID-19, they do so amid a resurgent strain of the coronavirus that has undone the progress made, especially through vaccination and masking,” the 13 Democratic members of the Texas State Senate wrote in a letter to Governor Greg Abbott asking him to lift his order.
“The early stages of the pandemic showed the resilience and creativity of local units of government to stem the tide of COVID-19 in their own communities. As we enter this next phase of the pandemic, school districts only await your approval to leverage their local knowledge to fight COVID on all fronts once again.”
Others see mask rules as a violation of parental rights.
“Parents and guardians have the right to decide whether their child will wear a mask or not, just as with any other decision in their child’s life,” Abbott’s office stated.
“The best defense against this virus is the COVID vaccines, and we continue to strongly encourage all eligible Texans to get vaccinated.”
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