At Schools Around North Texas, Gov. Abbott Faces Swell of Pushback to Mask Mandate Ban

Some school districts are sticking it to the man.
Some school districts are sticking it to the man. Photo by Mira Kireeva on Unsplash
When Amber Pierce approached the podium minutes into Monday’s Plano ISD emergency board meeting, tension already filled the packed room. As some parents glared in her direction, the mother of three young boys begged the trustees to require masks.

Many parents argue the coronavirus is jeopardizing students’ safety — especially for those too young to receive a vaccine. Pierce wanted her own children’s district to follow the lead of other North Texas schools that have rolled out face-covering requirements in recent weeks.

“I’m real sick of sending my kids to school with others whose parents believe they have a personal choice to put my children at risk. Simply encouraging masks isn’t working,” she said, speeding through her pre-written speech.

“Just like we require shoes for all students or peanut-free snacks in some classrooms,” she continued, “we need to come together for the safety of our district.”

But before Pierce could finish, she was cut off for going over the time limit, with a chorus of anti-mask parents shouting her down.

“Hey, hey!” Board President David Stolle shot back, telling hecklers to back off. “We are six speakers into this — six speakers in. We have 84 more to go, folks.”

Ultimately, Plano's school board passed a temporary mask requirement, 6–1.

Similar battles are playing out in meeting rooms across the state, with concerned parents on either side of the political aisle going head-to-head over schools’ health policies. A growing number of districts are flouting Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning local mask mandates, risking potential state-issued penalties to safeguard student safety.

“I think that the school districts feel insulated from any reprisals that the governor might consider because there are too many of them." — Cal Jillson, political science professor

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Denton ISD is among the latest to roll out a mask mandate, with Dallas ISD paving the way earlier this month. Richardson and Fort Worth ISDs are even suing the governor over his executive order.

Other school districts are getting creative. Last week, Paris ISD added mask-wearing to the district’s dress code for all students and employees to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses.

Meanwhile, some rural districts are opting to temporarily shutter their schoolhouses amid a shortage of local medical resources. In West Texas, for instance, Iraan-Sheffield ISD closed last week to protect students and staff, with plans to reopen Monday.

But Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is keeping score, and last week released a list of “violators” — school districts and local governments that are requiring masks. As of Wednesday, 10 counties and 69 school districts had imposed some form of mask requirement, according to the list.
Liberals are also rallying: The progressive political action committee Ground Game Texas has launched a fund to bail out school districts that mandate masks, raising more than $9,000 so far.

Now, Abbott is facing backlash, including a lawsuit filed by the parents of students with disabilities.

At the same time these cases are litigated, more districts are joining the pro-mask ranks, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

School officials likely feel they have science on their side, he said, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health experts are supporting such decisions.

“I think that the school districts feel insulated from any reprisals that the governor might consider because there are too many of them,” Jillson said.

There’s a profound difference in opinion regarding whether masks in schools are the best public policy, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. Abbott insists that the government shouldn’t make health decisions for parents because it restricts their liberty. Yet many school officials believe there’s an urgent need for masks to prevent COVID-19 spread.

Even though Abbott will eventually win the legal war, certain districts will do what they think is best for kids in the meantime, Jones said.

“They know that they can flout the governor’s order and it will take time for it to work its way through the courts,” he added. “And in the interim, every day that their mask mandate is enforced is one safer day for the health of their students and faculty.”

As of Wednesday, Dallas ISD has reported 699 coronavirus cases for the 2021–2022 school year, with 259 having occurred this week.
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter