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Paxton threatens legal action against school districts
School district administrations at Pearsall and Dilley have been sent letters by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton with reminders that they are in violation of a governor’s order in upholding a mask mandate at their campuses.
Failure by the districts to rescind their mandates may result in lawsuits against them by the attorney general on behalf of the state.
According to the state governor, the wearing of masks to help prevent infection from or transmission of COVIS-19 is entirely voluntary and cannot be required by any local or regional government, including school districts.
Both school districts in Frio County began ordering that masks be worn by all students and staff inside school buildings after August 30, shortly after the beginning of the new academic year.
At Pearsall ISD, Superintendent Dr. Nobert Rodriguez said in separate interviews during September that the district holds the students’ health and safety as a top priority and that he believes the mask order has helped reduce the number of positive coronavirus cases.
Rodriguez said preliminary reports indicated Pearsall ISD achieved a significantly lower rate of coronavirus infections among its student population and staff, compared to other school districts, since implementing the mask order.
On Monday, Sept. 27, Supt. Rodriguez reiterated in a prepared statement that he believes the school district is acting with student and staff health and wellbeing as a priority.
The superintendent also pointed to a milestone being passed last week, when the total number of deaths from COVID-19 surpassed the estimated tally of the influenza pandemic that began in 1918.
“If we as a community are going to overcome this COVID-19 pandemic, we have crucial roles to perform.” Dr. Rodriguez wrote. “Some of the roles include being sensitive and respectful of each other while following safety-health protocols to include wearing face masks when social distancing is not possible.”
Dilley ISD ordered a similar mandate and likewise indicated that it had been drafted with students’ wellbeing in mind. Superintendent Dr. Emilio Castro confirmed on Monday this week that he has received a letter from the state attorney general reminding him of the governor’s order and potential litigation.
“Dilley ISD is currently reviewing the letter of notification from the Attorney General’s Office regarding our mask requirements put in place in order to promote school, student, staff and community safety in the midst of the ongoing pandemic,” Supt. Castro wrote in a prepared statement Monday. “We greatly respect the rule of law and wish we had local control to take measures to potentially save lives.”
The superintendent stopped short of indicating whether Dilley ISD will rescind its mask mandate.
“Given our desire to listen to medical expert advice on this topic and also to not contradict the governor’s orders, we are reviewing all of the data and local options at this time.”
School board members at Cotulla ISD declined in August and September to draft a mask mandate for campuses in Cotulla and Encinal. The district administration has issued a statement to students and staff that it hopes all will exercise caution, observe health and safety protocols voluntarily and maintain appropriate social distancing wherever possible.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed an order on July 29 that no government entity operating in the state may create a mask mandate, effectively ending state and local control over health and safety protocols that had been in place since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
Pearsall ISD trustees met in mid-September and voted to take no action to alter the mask mandate that had been applied to all of the district’s campuses.
The state attorney general wrote last week that 102 entities in the state – most of them school districts – were in violation of Abbott’s GA-38, the executive order that prohibits governmental entities and officials from mandating face coverings or vaccines.
“This order has the force and effect of state law,” AG Paxton wrote, “and supersedes local rules and regulations.”
AG Paxton’s list also includes city and county governments, among them Bexar County (San Antonio), Dallas County, the city of El Paso, Fort Bend County, Harris County (Houston), and Travis County (Austin), as well as charter schools and academies.
Legal action has already been taken this month in the form of a lawsuit by the attorney general against school districts in Diboll, Elgin, Galveston, Honey Grove, La Vega, Longview, Lufkin, Paris, Round Rock, Spring, and Waco. The attorney general reported that he is in active litigation with Bexar, Dallas and Fort Bend county governments over their apparent violation of the Texas governor’s order.
Gov. Abbott acknowledged in his July 29 order that the COVID-19 pandemic is still underway, and “Texans are strongly encouraged as a matter of personal responsibility to consistently follow good hygiene, social distancing, and other mitigation practices.”
Supt. Rodriguez said he takes the matter to heart, as he believes the school district and the community are inseparably bonded. The August order by the district, he said, was made with close attention to specific conditions prevalent in a South Texas town.
“In our community, the Pearsall ISD Board of Trustees recognizes that every citizen in our community is an important family member of the district,” Supt. Rodriguez wrote Monday. “For Pearsall ISD, the decision to require a face mask indoors and inside vehicles has been about enhancing our safety protocols to protect the well-being of everyone; especially taking into consideration those parents who wish to vaccinate their children yet have still not been given the opportunity to do so for those under 12 years old.
“School boards of trustees are elected officials whose tasks include creating policies in the best interests of the students, parents, employees, and the community,” the superintendent wrote. “In August, Pearsall ISD approved a face mask mandate geared to protect the health and well-being of all students and staff as the new Delta variant of COVID-19 made its way across each community. So far, the number of COVID cases at each campus has been managed effectively with these safety protocols in place.
“Since the school year started, PISD has had less than fifty reported cases across all campuses, including employees,” Supt. Rodriguez wrote.
The governor’s order barring the imposition of mask mandates by any entity likewise prevents anyone from forcing employees or students to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The order does not apply to hospitals, state-operated living facilities, or state and local detention facilities such as prisons and jails.
The governor reiterated that receiving a vaccine continues to be entirely voluntary for all Texans.
“To ensure the ability of Texans to preserve livelihoods while protecting lives,” Gov. Abbott wrote, “there are no COVID-19-related operating limits for any business or other establishment.
“In areas where the COVID-19 transmission rate is high, individuals are encouraged to follow the safe practices they have already mastered,” the governor wrote, “such as wearing face coverings over the nose and mouth wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another person not in the same household, but no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering.”
It was the inability of Pearsall schools to guarantee that students could be kept at six-foot distances from each other during the school day and while engaged in various school-related activities, according to Supt. Rodriguez last week, that played a vital role in the district’s decision not to rescind the mask mandate.
“Even though face coverings cannot be mandated by any government entity, that does not prevent individuals from wearing one if they choose,” Gov. Abbott wrote.
“This executive order shall supersede any conflicting order issued by local officials in response to the COVID-19 disaster,” the governor wrote, “but only to the extent that such a local order restricts services allowed by this executive order or allows gatherings restricted by this executive order.”
Violations of the governor’s order, according to both Abbott’s and Paxton’s offices, are punishable by fines of up to $1,000.
“Pearsall ISD will continue to monitor COVID-related data across the community and district,” Supt. Rodriguez wrote Monday. “Until the state lawsuits are decided, Pearsall ISD is asking the students and staff to continue to wear face masks inside school buildings and school vehicles as well as practice good hand washing and use of hand sanitizer to protect each other from the spread of the virus.”