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Houston school district, one of largest in U.S., plans to defy governor's orders and impose mask mandate

A district spokesperson said the Board of Education "will show its support for the measure" during a meeting Thursday.
Students wearing masks walk outside Condit Elementary School, part of the Houston Independent School District, in Bellaire, Texas, on Dec. 16, 2020.Francois Picard / AFP via Getty Images file

Texas' largest school district plans on imposing a mask mandate for students, joining other big cities in the state that have already issued such orders.

Millard House II, the superintendent for the Houston Independent School District, told NBC affiliate KPRC 2 that the requirement could go into effect before the Aug. 23 start date.

A district spokesperson told NBC News on Wednesday that a mask mandate was not yet in effect for the district's 276 schools, but the Board of Education "will show its support for the measure" during a meeting Thursday.

The board did not immediately return a request for comment.

Dallas and Austin school districts announced this week that masks would be required for all students, staff and visitors regardless of their vaccination status. The same mandate was also imposed in San Antonio after a directive issued by the city and the Bexar County Health Authority.

"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.

Austin Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde expressed similar sentiments.

"I am responsible for the safety, health and welfare of each and every one of our students and our staff," she 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."

The order went into effect Tuesday in Dallas and Wednesday for Austin Independent School District, the fifth largest in the state.

Both leaders said in separate announcements that the mask order will help slow the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus. Vaccines are not yet available for children younger than 12.

The mask requirements are in defiance of an executive order that Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued in May barring school districts, as well other government entities, from requiring masks. His office criticized the school districts, saying in a statement that they violated not only his orders but the rights of parents.

"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," Abbott's 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.”