EDINBURG — Leadership from several school districts in the Rio Grande Valley joined a statewide uprising against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates Thursday, while other districts in the area continue to face community pressure for their stance on the pandemic.
At least six Valley school districts voted to take legal action over the mask mandate order Wednesday and Thursday.
The boards of the Edinburg, Pharr-San-Juan-Alamo and Brownsville school districts implemented a mask policy and voted to sue the governor and the state over his order forbidding that sort of mandate.
That action will directly affect around 100,000 students and teachers as they return for the 2021-22 school year.
Those districts followed La Joya ISD, which did the same thing late Wednesday evening.
Hidalgo ISD also took legal action Thursday, filing a temporary restraining order against the governor. Leadership there expects to mandate masks if a temporary restraining order is in place, which should be before school begins there in 10 days.
Edcouch-Elsa ISD approved filing a suit as well, along with a resolution asking the governor to allow mask mandates and to authorize fully funding virtual instruction as needed.
Sharyland considered some sort of legal action in emergency meetings Wednesday and Thursday, but ultimately stopped short of doing so.
Other districts and governmental entities across the state have moved to institute mask mandates in defiance of the order as well, particularly entities in large municipalities.
A statement from Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued Wednesday pledges to take legal action against any entity that defies the governor’s May executive order prohibiting mask mandates.
A release from the Texas Education Agency on Thursday said the agency would be refraining from issuing updated public health guidance due to legal disputes over the order.
The Edinburg board’s action Thursday will affect over 30,000 students and staff members. The resolution approved requires masks for all students, staff and visitors, save those that are exempt from wearing one in writing by a licensed physician.
It requires people on school facilities to abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on social distancing and directs the district’s police officers to enforce the district’s resolution.
“In these uncertain times, I want to take every precaution available to us,” Edinburg School Board President Mike Farias said. “And I’d rather err on the side of safety than on the side of negligence. I am for mandating masks — temporarily — until the numbers do go down. And it’s very important that we take every opportunity possible and every resource possible to keep our kids safe, at any cost.”
Discussion on the board indicated the district may consider even more drastic pandemic precautions.
Trustee Louie Alamia called for administration to explore options bringing back virtual learning for students at the district, citing concerns over unvaccinated students and people on campus with medical issues.
“Our numbers are increasing rapidly, and aside from the mask mandate, I do believe we need this option to keep our children educated, but overall safe,” he said.
A teacher and a community member who spoke in public comment also called for more stringent pandemic precautions, citing concerns over hospitalization rates and students too young to be vaccinated.
Dan Diaz, a local ER nurse and ambulance company owner, pleaded for the district to consider implementing virtual learning, saying local hospitals are “inundated” with COVID patients.
“The issue is if we do have any increase of COVID, there’s nowhere to put them right now,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, released a statement Thursday afternoon praising districts that enacted mask mandates in South Texas.
“Mask mandates are not about politics — they are safe, effective and backed by science,” he wrote. “I stand by and applaud the educational leaders who have defied Governor Abbott’s illogical executive order banning mask mandates. Superintendents and schools in South Texas must be able to implement common-sense precautions to keep students, teachers, families and essential workers safe.”
Many Valley districts are facing pressure from the public to do more — or less — about COVID-19.
An online petition posted Wednesday calling on McAllen ISD to take a more proactive pandemic stance had just under 1,000 signatures Thursday evening.
“School districts across the country & across the state are defying Governor orders and are putting the interest of children above all else. Why won’t McAllen follow suit?” the petition reads. “Our children sacrificed last year in order to protect us adults. It is now our turn to do absolutely everything within our reach to protect our children. Sending kids to school amongst the unmasked who could possibly (infect) them with Covid-19, leading to death or life long medical issues is child endangerment.”
The McAllen American Federation of Teachers branch is also pressuring the district to implement a mask mandate.
Conversely, a handful of community members addressing the McAllen board Monday strongly opposed the district even encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations and mask use, saying largely that the district had no role in responding to the pandemic.
Members of the public voiced similar comments opposing stringent pandemic measures before an emergency meeting of the Sharyland school board Thursday afternoon. In fact, that board heard from some of the same speakers as the McAllen board.
“As we know, there was an executive order done a few months ago from the governor stating to remove the mask mandates,” said Laura Gutierrez, a Palmhurst resident who said her daughter has suffered from anxiety through the pandemic and called COVID-19 a hoax. “We cannot put them back on our kids. We have our civil rights and we have our freedoms.”
Although the Sharyland board discussed possible litigation against Abbott and possible action to oversee the district as it pertains to COVID-19 in executive session for three hours at emergency meetings Wednesday and Thursday, it took relatively little action.
The board voted to obtain opinions from medical personnel in the community on the state of the pandemic at the end of the meeting Thursday.
“To get some facts and data on case counts in our area, along with any kind of hospital issues with rooms and cases that might come up with people needing to be hospitalized, kids needing treatment,” Trustee Keith Padilla said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:18 p.m. with the full version.