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Texas sues 6 school districts that defied governor's order, imposed mask requirements

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned that other districts will be sued if they defy the state prohibition on mask mandates.
FILE PHOTO: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton addresses reporters on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton addresses reporters on the steps of the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Friday he's suing at least six districts that defied Gov. Greg Abbott's order prohibiting mask mandates at public schools.

Paxton said the Elgin, Galveston, Richardson, Round Rock, Sherman and Spring school systems are among those not following the law, adding that an ongoing list of those out of compliance will be updated with possibly more districts that could face the state's legal wrath. The attorney general also said earlier this summer that the legislature could vote to cut funding to districts that defy the governor's order.

"The Office of the Attorney General anticipates the filing of additional lawsuits if school districts and other governmental entities continue to defy state law," Paxton's office said in a statement.

Abbott issued an executive order in May that prohibits mask mandates at state funded institutions, including public schools, community colleges and state universities.

"We’re past the time of government mandates, we’re into the time for personal responsibility," Abbott said in July, explaining the state's stance.

Multiple institutions have defied the prohibition, arguing that masks are necessary to slow the pace of the pandemic as the fourth wave brought on by the delta variant continues to spread.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask usage in indoor public spaces for unvaccinated Americans 2 and older. Covid-19 vaccines have yet to be approved for children younger than 12. But the CDC says even those who are vaccinated should wear masks in indoor public spaces in areas with high Covid-19 transmission.

The city of Austin, Texas' capital, has issued rules requiring masks at public schools, colleges, universities and in city buildings. And in August, a Travis County judge temporarily overturned Gov. Greg Abbott’s order for public schools and other institutions in that area. Travis includes Austin and surrounding areas.

Jodi Duron, superintendent of the Elgin Independent School District outside Austin, said she can't comment on Paxton's suit because the district has not received a copy. But she said by email that the district "continues to comply with Travis County Judge Andy Brown's order requiring Travis County schools to implement a mask mandate for all individuals over the age of 2 while on school property and on District buses."

President Joe Biden, in a public address Thursday, took aim at Texas and other Republican-led states for what he said was a pandemic response "undermining you."

"Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs," he said. "Talk about bullying in schools. If they’ll not help — if these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as President to get them out of the way."

Biden has vowed to replace state funding with federal funding for teachers and officials who are "doing the right thing" should their salaries be stripped by state leaders over mask mandates and other pandemic measures. And he said the Department of Education was taking legal action against states "undermining protection that local school officials have ordered.'

"I promise you I will have your back," he said.

In announcing the lawsuits against the six districts, Paxton sounded just as steadfast.

"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,” he said in his statement.

"I have full confidence that the courts will side with the law — not acts of political defiance," Paxton said.