Hidalgo County to consider lifting school mask mandate

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County will meet with area school superintendents Wednesday to consider lifting its mask mandate for local campuses, according to county Health Authority Ivan Melendez.

Speaking to Edinburg CISD’s school board Tuesday evening, Melendez said in his opinion pandemic numbers in the area have dropped enough to let the county’s mandate lapse.

That mandate was put into place just prior to the beginning of the school year in August, joining a host of other mandates and requirements that sparked legal friction by countermanding Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning mask mandates.

Despite sometimes fierce public pressure against masks, districts in the county largely adhered to that mandate or launched their own, often coupled with legal action against Abbott and the state.

Weslaco ISD dropped its mask requirement last month, citing new state guidance.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez will meet with 17 local superintendents, Melendez said, and decide whether to eliminate the requirement. He indicated strongly that the mandate would be allowed to lapse, but said Cortez would obtain opinions from the county’s health officials and those superintendents first.

Melendez, accompanied by county Health and Human Services CEO Eddie Olivarez, described COVID-19 activity receding to a level where they felt the mandate could be eliminated.

“We have to be fair and we have to maintain credibility,” Melendez said. “And so just like we…had the courage to mandate, I think now it’s time to have courage to back off because that’s what the numbers indicated.”

The men described the efficacy of vaccines, along with vaccines for younger populations and new coronavirus-fighting drugs on the horizon.

Calling hospitalization rates an important indicator of pandemic levels, Melendez said at one point in the second wave those rates exceeded 600. On Tuesday they stood at 150.

Many of those individuals have been there for some time and have a poor prognosis, he said. Although pandemic activity will continue, he likened it to not being able to open a window on an airplane above 500 feet.

In Melendez’s words, we’ve dipped below that threshold and it’s OK to let a little breeze in.

“And so we’re not going to renew the mask mandates,” he said. “We’re going to strongly encourage people to use masks always, always. And we don’t want people to think because we’re not making mandates that it’s not an issue, because it is, and that’s why I’m giving these numbers.”

Edinburg School Board President Miguel “Mike” Farias indicated the district has seen a gradual reduction of COVID-19 cases among its students and staff as well.

“Now it’s very low, and we’re encouraged by it,” he said.