Weslaco ISD drops mask requirement

Masks are now optional at Weslaco Independent School District, a spokesperson for the school said Wednesday.

Masks were required up until Monday, spokesperson Arminda Munoz said via email Wednesday.

“Weslaco ISD strongly encourages everyone to continue to wear masks at all WISD indoor facilities,” she wrote.

The district’s Interim Superintendent Criselda “Cris” Valdez told the district’s Board of Trustees on Tuesday that new guidance from the Texas Education Agency may make mask wearing at local schools optional.

Referencing expired temporary restraining orders and a county order issued in August, Valdez said the district’s attorneys felt TEA guidance issued Monday would require the district to make masks optional.

“We highly encourage everybody to keep wearing the masks, because the data indicates that these extra layers of protection are effective, and so that is something that we will need to address as a Board of Trustees and as a school system,” she said Tuesday. “And I did seek legal counsel, and the advice, legal advice, is that we must adhere to yesterday’s TEA public health guidance. And so now the mask wearing will be optional, but we highly encourage it because it works.”

A mandate from Hidalgo County Health Authority Ivan Melendez issued last month required masks at local districts, unless their boards voted to opt out of it. Other local districts sued Gov. Greg Abbott for the ability to require masks and were granted temporary restraining orders.

All but one district in the county decided to abide by the mandate, Melendez testified at a court hearing Aug. 23, although he declined to say which district that was.

The vast majority of Hidalgo County’s larger districts appeared to adhere to that mandate, including Weslaco ISD. The Weslaco school board voted unanimously to adhere to the mandate after it was issued.

A spokesperson for Hidalgo County said Wednesday that the county’s position is that the state’s new guidance does not affect the county’s mandate and that a board vote would still be required for a district to opt out of the mandate.

The board did not vote on making masks optional.

Munoz, the district spokesperson, said the TEA guidance Valdez was citing is Executive Order GA-38, which “provides TEA with the legal authority to publish requirements for public school systems during the COVID-19 pandemic” and bans mask mandates.

Guidance related to that order made headlines Tuesday after the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation into the TEA based on the ban’s potential effect on students with disabilities.

At least one trustee Tuesday evening indicated that word about the change in mask requirements was already circulating through the community.

“I’m getting the panicking messages already,” Trustee Jacky Sustaita said later in Tuesday’s meeting.