On Monday Aug. 9, the Dallas school district became the first in Texas to defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order proscribing government entities, including K-12 schools, from requiring face coverings. Other urban districts in Texas have followed suit. Dallas has since won some legal cover for the move, with judges there and in Bexar County granting temporary injunctions against the order in two separate lawsuits.
Michael Hinojosa, the district’s superintendent, spoke to Education Week about how he arrived at the decision, how his 27-year career as a superintendent prepared him, and what the reaction has been from his community—so far. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
When we started school—we have five schools on a year-round calendar that began a week and a half ago—this wasn’t even on my radar. And then I started to see our cases going up precipitously, and then it started exploding. And in my mind, I thought how are we going to manage this thing?
We are now at 600-700 new cases a day, and my threshold was always 1,000. Yesterday [Aug. 11], we were at 1,300. In Dallas County, cases went from 300 to 1,300 in one week.
I had heard a lawyer talk about there being some doubt that the governor’s mask mandate could be enforced. Millard House II, the new superintendent in Houston, called me that Wednesday and said they were considering [bucking the order]. And I thought, ‘We may have a window now.’
The [Texas] urban superintendents and I had a conference call that Thursday, and we all realized where this was going and I went back, and then I didn’t even meet with my full team. I met with my chief of staff and Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, and said, ‘This is getting bad fast.’ I charged them with getting me an execution plan in the next 12 hours.
I was going to institute [the requirement] last Friday, but had to slow down a little bit: Board members never like surprises. So I decided to pump the brakes until Monday so I could have a conversation with my board and figure out if I was going to have support if I moved quickly. To their credit, they know I run the day-to-day operations in the district, and I said I’d accept responsibility if it didn’t go well.
I called the [Dallas county executive], and unbeknownst to me, he had filed a lawsuit [challenging the order], and won that.
So far, I’ve had very little blowback. I’ve had one teacher, one parent say something, and the Dallas Morning News editorial page came out against us. All the others have been positive. I don’t do social media because I don’t want to lose my mojo, but my wife does, and my chief of staff does, and they say it’s been 95 percent positive. Let me tell you what’s happened in the last two days: We had 41 schools who started this week. We’ve had no issues of noncompliance at any campus.
I’ve gotten emails and texts from superintendents all over the country. I was involved in the [Council of the Great City Schools] and [AASA, the School Superintendents’ Association], so I know all these superintendents, and they’re all thanking me and texting me. I’ve had very little blowback. But the game’s not over.
The legal machinations are going to continue to work out. The governor and the attorney general can appeal, and the Supreme Court here is conservative. But right now I’m shocked at how well people have received it, and how compliant everyone is.
If the lawsuits get overturned, I’ve got another tough decision to make. Do I continue to conduct civil disobedience and face a fine, or whatever other steps they could take against me? And at the same time, how can I follow a law that I believe will endanger my students, my staff, and my community? To me, that would be intellectually dishonest.
I think [being a big-city leader with a strong reputation] has something to do with the decision, the fact that I’ve been around. I’m not necessarily a militant, and I’m not a reactionary; I’m pretty quiet, I’m a solemn guy. But my reputation helps me to do this, and a lot of peers followed suit. If you didn’t have the street cred with the legislature, the community, the board and your staff, it would be a different situation.
Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth—and Houston is about to—they have also instituted masking requirements. It makes me feel good that they have confidence in following along, and that we’re willing to go down this trail together.
Two things have helped me be a superintendent this long. I was a government teacher, and so I understand politics. I’m not a politician, but I understand politics. A lot of superintendents get in trouble because they don’t understand politics.
And I was a basketball referee, and in that job everyone is always yelling at you, and so you have to build that grit and confidence to make some unpopular decisions. You can’t dwell on the last decision; you just have to look forward to the next one.
A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2021 edition of Education Week