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Dallas and Austin school districts defy governor's order, will require masks

Both districts said masking will help keep students and staff safe and slow the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus.

Two of Texas' largest school districts are imposing mask requirements, defying Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order that prohibits such mandates in schools.

Students in a third, San Antonio, will also have to wear masks after a judge issued a temporary restraining order allowing the city and county to issue a mandate Tuesday.

Superintendents in Dallas and Austin separately announced the requirements Monday, with the leaders saying masking will help keep students and staff safe and slow the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus.

"As the superintendent of the second-largest district in Texas, I'm responsible for everything. Most importantly, the safety of our students and staff and families," Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said at a news conference streamed by NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.

"So I need to implement whatever safety protocols I feel are in the best interest of our school district," he said, adding that the situation with the delta variant has gotten "significantly more urgent."

The requirement, which begins Tuesday, says all students, staff and visitors must wear masks while at the district's 230 schools.

A message on its website said the mask requirement is temporary but does not say how long it will be in place.

"We will continue to monitor the cases in consultation with the Dallas County Health and Human Services," the district said.

The Austin Independent School District, the fifth-largest in the state, has also imposed the same mask mandate. It begins Wednesday for the district's 125 schools.

Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde made the announcement during a school board meeting Monday. The board's president, Geronimo M. Rodriguez Jr., said the requirement for students, staff and visitors is to help protect children who cannot be vaccinated.

Covid-19 shots are not yet available for children younger than 12.

"I am responsible for the safety, health and welfare of each and every one of our students and our staff," Elizalde said in a statement. "If I err, I must err on the side of ensuring that we’ve been overly cautious, not that we have fallen short."

Abbott, the Republican governor, issued an executive order in May barring school districts, as well as other government entities, from requiring masks. His office issued a statement on Tuesday.

“We are all working to protect Texas children and those most vulnerable among us, but violating the Governor’s executive orders — and violating parental rights — is not the way to do it. Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for mask mandates is over; now is the time for personal responsibility. Parents and guardians have the right to decide whether their child will wear a mask or not, just as with any other decision in their child’s life," his press secretary said via email.

"Governor Abbott has spent his entire time in office fighting for the rights and freedoms of all Texans, and our office continues working with the Office of the Attorney General to do just that. The best defense against this virus is the Covid vaccines, and we continue to strongly encourage all eligible Texans to get vaccinated.”

The Austin school system pointed to recent guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in making its decision, saying the agency recommended universal indoor masking at schools. The district said it saw a lower coronavirus positivity rate inside schools than in the community at large when it required masks during the last school year.

Dallas school leaders said county health officials have reported that hospitalizations are rising at a fast rate among all age groups, including children.

"Students under 12 are not eligible for a vaccine, however, school attendance is mandatory, and virtual learning is not an option at this time," the Dallas district said. "Governor Abbott’s order does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students. Dallas ISD remains committed to the safety of our students and staff."

In San Antonio, it was the city and the Bexar County Health Authority that issued the directive that schools require students, staff and visitors to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. The order directs public schools to follow CDC guidance.

It was made after Bexar County District Court Judge Toni Arteaga granted a temporary restraining order preventing enforcement of Abbott's order, the city said.

A full hearing is scheduled for Monday. San Antonio ISD serves about 47,000 students.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the chief executive of the county, saluted the effort to seek a restraining order so that school masks could be required.

"We have come too far to allow our students to be super spreaders and put more lives at risk," Wolff tweeted earlier Tuesday.

Houston, the state’s largest district, is considering a mask requirement after new Superintendent Millard House II asked trustees to vote on re-instituting a mandate, according to NBC affiliate KPRC. The board will take up the matter Thursday.

Phil Helsel contributed.