What to know: Gov. Abbott and local officials fighting several legal battles over mask mandates

ByJOSHUA FECHTER, The Texas Tribune KTRK logo
Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Texas sues 6 school districts that issued mask mandates
Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have long threatened to sue school districts that defy Abbott's ban on local mask mandates. On Friday, Paxton made good on that threat.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is locked in several pitched legal battles with cities, counties and school districts over their bids to require masks in public schools.

In a May executive order, Abbott banned local governments from requiring people to wear masks.

But as the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spread across Texas and the state's vaccination rate stagnated, several public school and local government officials grew uneasy with Abbott's order - particularly as schoolchildren too young to get vaccinated returned to classrooms.

Some local officials defied Abbott and issued mask mandates for schools anyway. Others sued the state over Abbott's order. As dozens of ensuing legal battles continue playing out, Texas parents have found themselves caught in confusion about whether their children have to mask up at school.

Which local governments are suing the state?

When it became clear Abbott wasn't going to reverse his ban on mask mandates, a slew of school districts, cities and counties sued Abbott to enact their own mandates. Others simply ignored Abbott's order and put mask-wearing rules in place anyway.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of the many entities that have sued Abbott:

  • Aldine Independent School District
  • Austin Community College
  • Austin Independent School District
  • Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco Independent School District
  • Bexar County
  • Brownsville Independent School District
  • City of El Paso
  • City of San Antonio
  • Crowley Independent School District
  • Dallas College
  • Dallas County
  • Dallas Independent School District
  • DeSoto Independent School District
  • Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District
  • Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District
  • El Paso Independent School District
  • Fort Bend County
  • Fort Bend Independent School District
  • Fort Worth Independent School District
  • Harris County
  • Hidalgo Independent School District
  • Houston Independent School District
  • La Joya Independent School District
  • Lancaster Independent School District
  • Lasara Independent School District
  • Northside Independent School District
  • Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District
  • Spring Independent School District
  • Travis County

Which school districts are being sued by the state?

After Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened for weeks to sue those defying Abbott's order, they made good on their promise in September. Paxton has sued a number of school districts for allegedly flouting Abbott's ban:

  • Diboll Independent School District
  • Elgin Independent School District
  • Galveston Independent School District
  • Honey Grove Independent School District
  • La Vega Independent School District
  • Longview Independent School District
  • Lufkin Independent School District
  • McGregor Independent School District
  • Midway Independent School District
  • Paris Independent School District
  • Richardson Independent School District
  • Round Rock Independent School District
  • Sherman Independent School District
  • Spring Independent School District
  • Waco Independent School District

Which side is winning in court?

That depends on the lawsuit and the court.

Often, local officials find favor with lower court judges who block Abbott's order and allow locals to enact mask mandates - though some of those judges have sided against mask mandates. The state Supreme Court has temporarily overturned some of those mandates - only for a lower court judge to reinstate them and start the legal churn all over again.

That legal back-and-forth has led to a confusing patchwork of mask mandates across the state.

How do I know what the rules are in my school district?

Because each Texas school district makes its own rules - and decides whether to abide by Abbott's ban or flout it - there is no one statewide policy in place. Plus, the ongoing legal battles have spurred orders from courts at all levels that quickly change what rules are in place. The best way to know your local rules are to check with your school district.

Not all districts being sued have mask mandates

Midway Independent School District near Waco doesn't require students, teachers, school staff or visitors to wear masks while on school premises. Nonetheless, the district wound up on a list compiled by the attorney general's office of school districts and counties that have made mask-wearing compulsory - and in court with Paxton.

Another Waco-area district, McGregor Independent School District, opted not to enforce a mask-wearing requirement that kicks in when virus transmission became too severe - a decision made at Paxton's request, Superintendent James Lenamon said. Nonetheless, Paxton sued.

What are the main arguments both sides are making?

In court documents, Abbott and Paxton have argued state law makes the governor the "commander-in-chief" of the state's disaster response - which they say gives Abbott the authority to overrule cities, counties and public schools that try to enact mask mandates.

Yet Abbott and Paxton also have argued that neither one of them has the authority to enforce Abbott's ban - a power that lies with district attorneys.

Local officials counter that state law does not give Abbott absolute authority during disasters. Cities, counties and schools have argued that Abbott's disaster powers don't give him the authority to prevent localities from enacting measures intended to ameliorate the crisis - like mask mandates.

A separate lawsuit argues Abbott's ban violates federal protections for students with disabilities

Separately, a group of 14 children with disabilities has sued Abbott in federal court arguing that his order is discriminatory because it prevents them from returning to a safe school environment - in violation of federal protections for students with disabilities. That case hasn't yet gone to trial.

Why is Abbott opposed to local mask mandates?

In July, Abbott argued "that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates." But he and Paxton are also under considerable political pressure from their right flank to bring the hammer down on local officials who enact measures like mask mandates - which are highly unpopular among hard-right conservatives. Both men have drawn primary challengers from their right in their 2022 reelection bids.

Abbott even called on Texas lawmakers to send him a bill to stop school officials from requiring mask-wearing. But they didn't.

On top of that, the Texas Education Agency isn't enforcing Abbott's ban - which so far has been enough to convince the Biden administration not to go after Texas for blocking school district mask mandates as it has in other states.

The video above is from a Sept. 10 report when the state sued school districts in defiance of Gov. Abbott's order.

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