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Another Texas school district defies governor by requiring masks as Covid surges

The uncertainty roiling the Lockhart Independent School District highlights the larger volatility school districts face as students return to classrooms.

With nearly 800 students in quarantine after a rise in Covid-19 case numbers, a Central Texas school district has begun requiring masks this week — the latest to reject Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mandates.

The Lockhart Independent School District, south of Austin, has 204 active cases of Covid-19, the majority of them among students, Superintendent Mark Estrada said in a statement Saturday after the Board of Trustees voted 5-2 to enforce wearing masks.

Estrada said the district shuttered four classes and a student program after 20 percent or more of those students were diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The school district said about 13 percent of its about 6,100 students have been quarantined.

"We expect there will be a need to close more classes in the coming weeks," Estrada said, "and if any campus should reach 10 percent or more of students campus-wide who are diagnosed with Covid-19, the district may need to begin closing campuses as well, transitioning students to online learning during the temporary campus closure."

The uncertainty roiling the Lockhart Independent School District highlights the larger volatility school districts face as students return to classrooms for the fall and officials grapple with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. The U.S. over the weekend logged its 40 millionth Covid-19 case since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020 — a grim tally as hospitals in many states confront a fourth wave of the virus and lagging vaccination rates rise slowly.

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services has recorded a sharp jump in Covid-19 rates, with more than 51,900 positive student cases since it began tracking for the 2021-22 school year on Aug. 13. The total is up from 18,000 student cases tracked two weeks ago, NBC Dallas-Fort Worth reported.

The Texas Education Agency said last week that about four dozen school districts, representing about 42,000 students, had stopped offering in-person classes since the start of the school year because of Covid-19. In East Texas, more than 20 districts closed for several days to deep-clean classrooms; a majority were scheduled to reopen Tuesday, NBC Dallas-Fort Worth reported.

The Connally Independent School District, in the suburban Waco area, said it would begin requiring masks when schools reopen Tuesday after they were temporarily closed following the deaths of two teachers from Covid-19. One of the teachers was 41, and the other was 59; both worked at Connally Junior High School, but school officials said they did not believe there was a correlation.

Abbott, a Republican, has rebuffed calls by Democratic leaders and public health officials to mandate masks even as he tested positive for Covid-19 last month. He has been vaccinated.

In a statement last month, Abbott's office reiterated his stance against a return to restrictions, saying that he "has been clear that we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates," and that "every Texan has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated."

Many larger school districts in the state have declined to follow the executive order Abbott issued in July barring the mandating of masks and vaccines. While the state Supreme Court upheld the order, schools can continue to require masks until the litigation is resolved.

The Texas Education Agency has previously said public schools were under no obligation to conduct contact tracing, but it changed course last week, saying districts must notify teachers, staff members and families if a Covid-19 test at a school comes back positive.