The Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling Sunday that temporarily blocks mask mandates, a major setback for the state’s counties and local institutions trying to follow public health guidance amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Texas.
The justices granted Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s request for an emergency stay that temporarily halts lower court decisions overruling his ban on mask mandates. The ruling specifically applies to Dallas and Bexar counties.
“Local mask mandates are illegal under GA-38,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. “Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and Local officials that the Governor’s order stands.”
The ruling comes after about two dozen school districts and several counties across Texas defied Abbott’s executive order from May that bans local entities from imposing mask mandates. Abbott, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, argued that his order is meant to allow individuals to choose whether they want to wear a mask, rather than a government-imposed mandate.
On Aug. 10, the Dallas Independent School District announced that the district was temporarily requiring all staff and students to wear a mask when on district property. The district was the first in Texas to issue a mask mandate, declaring that Abbott’s order “does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students.”
Since then, about two dozen school districts in Texas decided to require masks for the new school year. Bexar County and its county seat of San Antonio won a lower court battle against Abbott on Tuesday to have the authority to mandate masks in public schools.
On Friday, the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio upheld that ruling, permitting Bexar County to require masks in public schools, according to the Texas Tribune. The 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas later upheld a more far-reaching order from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who on Wednesday began requiring masks in schools, universities and businesses.
“This isn’t the first time we have dealt with activist characters. It’s deja vu all over again,” Paxton said in a statement at the time Jenkins signed his order. “Attention-grabbing judges and mayors have defied executive orders before, when the pandemic first started, and the courts ruled on our side ― the law.”
In the state’s request to the Texas Supreme Court, Paxton and Abbott argued that the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor power to act as the “commander in chief” of the state’s response to a disaster. Attorneys representing cities and counties that have sued Abbott over the ban, like Bexar County, claimed the order should not override local orders.
Dallas ISD Supt. Michael Hinojosa responded to the Texas Supreme Court ruling by maintaining that his district will continue with its mask mandate. Hinojosa said the court’s order applied to Dallas County, and did not mention the school district, according to KTVT-TV. Dallas ISD’s website still says that face coverings are required for students and staff.
The recent COVID-19 surge is fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, leading to increases in cases and hospitalizations throughout the state and across the South. The spike has particularly affected children, as many of them are younger than 12 ― an age group not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidance recommending universal masking for students and staff at schools. Many teachers and families in Texas ― particularly parents of children who are especially vulnerable to the virus ― have expressed concern that the virus will spread like wildfire as the school year begins if districts don’t impose mask mandates.
The surge paired with concern from parents and staff is what led to a rising number of districts to impose mask mandates, including some of the biggest ones like Dallas ISD, Houston ISD and Austin ISD.