Law & Courts

Texas Attorney General Sues More School Districts That Require Masks

By Talia Richman, The Dallas Morning News — September 15, 2021 4 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
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The Texas attorney general’s office filed even more lawsuits Tuesday against districts that require students to wear masks to school.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced it filed suit against nine more school districts, including the Waco and Paris independent school districts. In August, Paris — a 3,800-student district about 100 miles northeast of Dallas — added masks as part of the school’s dress code “to address health issues in light of (the) pandemic.”

On Friday, Paxton filed a lawsuit against Richardson ISD, following through on his pledge to sue school districts who mandate masks.

The districts defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local entities from requiring masks. The Richardson ISD trustees voted in early September to affirm Superintendent Jeannie Stone’s decision to require face coverings, after they were forced to close an elementary school because of a spike in COVID-19 cases and a 6th grader was admitted into the intensive care unit.

Paxton noted in a release that the office anticipates filing additional lawsuits against the districts flouting the governor’s order. This could include Dallas ISD — the first to openly defy Abbott.

“Not only are superintendents across Texas openly violating state law, but they are using district resources — that ought to be used for teacher merit raises or other educational benefits — to defend their unlawful political maneuvering,” Paxton said in a statement.

Texas is monitoring how the new coronavirus is impacting schools across the state.

In a district statement, Richardson spokesperson Tim Clark stated that “RISD has not been served with such a lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation.”

RISD officials determined masks are necessary to protect students and staff amid a surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant. More than half of all public school students are too young to get the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking inside schools.

“We’re seeing COVID become increasingly bad. Having to shut down Brentfield (Elementary) was an eye-opener to us,” Richardson ISD board President Karen Clardy said after last week’s emergency meeting.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • As of Jan. 24, five states have bans in effect that prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week analysis. Five additional states have such bans, but they have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.

  • MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT


    1. Florida

    On Sept. 22, Florida's surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians "sole discretion" over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18 Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.

    2. Oklahoma

    On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of school mask mandates if they choose.

    3. Texas

    On Dec. 1, an appeals court halted a federal judge’s order that had stopped Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools, allowing the prohibition to remain in effect.

    4. Utah

    In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.

    5. Virginia

    An executive order from Gov. Youngkin that took effect on Jan. 24, 2022 allows parents to opt their child out of any mask mandate at their school. The order also rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been put in place since August. The order has caused confusion and prompted lawsuits.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED


    1. Arizona

    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

    2. Arkansas

    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. On Jan. 25, a federal appeals panel narrowed that injunction, allowing enforcement of the ban, in all but 10 districts. The panel's decision has yet to take effect, so the state is still not enforcing the ban.

    4. South Carolina

    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    5. Tennessee

    MASKS REQUIRED


    1. California
    2. Connecticut
    3. Delaware
    4. District of Columbia
    5. Hawaii
    6. Illinois
    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, and most recently extended on Jan. 19, students are required to wear masks in schools, but districts can opt out of the mandate if they adopt an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but newly allowed school districts to opt out if at least 80% of the county or 80% of their students and staff have been fully vaccinated.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Jan. 10, Massachusetts extended the state's mask requirement through Feb. 28. On Sept. 27, Massachusetts said schools can apply for a waiver from the face covering rules if 80% of their students and staff have been vaccinated. If a school reaches the 80% threshold, unvaccinated students and employees are still required to wear masks.

    10. Nevada
    11. New Jersey

    On Dec. 7, a judge ruled New Jersey's school mask mandate is "rational" and does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

    12. New Mexico
    13. New York

    On Jan. 24, a judge struck down the state's mask mandate. A day later, an appeals judge restored the mandate.

    14. Oregon
    15. Rhode Island
    16. Washington
  • Note: In Missouri, the state attorney general has sued some school districts that require masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 are illegal. (The ruling is being interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he was also cracking down on schools with mask mandates.
    Updated 01/26/2022 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here

Richardson is among the first Texas districts to be sued by Paxton. Friday he also filed suit against the Galveston, Elgin, Spring, and Sherman school districts, according to his office.

Paxton has railed against the dozens of school districts and counties who stood firm on mask mandates, repeatedly posting on social media that he would sue them all. Paxton’s office maintains an ever-evolving list of local entities that are mandating masks.

Meanwhile, Abbott’s order is tied up in both state and federal courts as districts and advocates push for mask mandates to be local decisions.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins is locked in a legal fight with the state over his decision to impose a local mask mandate for businesses and schools.

Disability Rights Texas recently escalated the legal battle, filing a federal lawsuit against Abbott, alleging his order unfairly harms children with disabilities.

Richardson trustees also recently voted to join an existing multidistrict lawsuit challenging Abbott’s ban, which argues the governor’s executive order exceeds his authority and infringes on local control.

See Also

Kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles on April 13, 2021.
Kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles in April 2021.
Jae C. Hong/AP

Paxton’s move could have federal implications, as well. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently opened investigations into five states that prohibit mask mandates, saying such bans may violate the federal law meant to protect students with disabilities.

Department officials indicated they had not opened an investigation into Texas because its ban isn’t currently being enforced because of court orders.

The legal wrangling over masks comes as schools are reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases.

Schools statewide reported that nearly 74,000 students have tested positive just weeks into this school year, according to Texas Education Agency data. The state reported about 148,000 positive COVID-19 student cases for all of the last school year. Nearly 5.4 million students attend public schools in Texas.

Richardson, which enrolls roughly 37,400 kids, recorded more than 720 student cases just since early August. The district counted about 1,850 student cases total during last school year when many students were learning virtually.

RISD health services director Ashley Jones said at last week’s meeting that she’s heard from school officials that some parents are coming together and deciding not to test their children on purpose.

“This is the environment that we are starting our school with,” she warned.

The district closed Brentfield for 10 days after almost a quarter of its students were absent from in-person school last week, including 29 people with active COVID-19 cases.

The trustees said during their meeting that their main priority was keeping kids learning in-person, as safely as possible.

Copyright (c) 2021, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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