La Joya ISD announces intention to sue Gov. Abbott, issues mask mandate

La Joya ISD Police Department and the Custodial Department working collectively to deliver supplies to clean and sanitize classrooms, April 14, in La Joya. (Courtesy Photo)

LA JOYA — During an emergency meeting late Wednesday, the La Joya Independent School District Board of Trustees voted to authorize legal counsel to file a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott and the state of Texas over the ability to make local decisions regarding student and staff health and safety.

A statement from Superintendent Gisela Saenz posted 10 minutes before the meeting began says that effective Thursday the district will begin temporarily requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks on district property.

“Governor Abbott’s Executive Order does not limit the District’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students,” she wrote. “ La Joya ISD remains committed to the safety of our students and staff and assures our parents and community that we are doing everything in our power to combat this virus. Safety first benefits us all.”

That policy directly contradicts a May executive order from the governor that expressly prohibits school districts requiring masks.

Large school districts across the state began requiring masks in defiance of that order earlier this week, among them Austin ISD and Dallas ISD.

Officials in Bexar County and a nonprofit education group also sued the governor over the order earlier this week.

La Joya may have legal action coming back its way because of the mask mandate. Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton distributed a release before the meeting Wednesday stating their intent to take “any school district, public university, or local government official that decides to defy the order” to court.

“Under Executive Order GA-38, no governmental entity can require or mandate the wearing of masks,” Abbott wrote. “The path forward relies on personal responsibility—not government mandates. The State of Texas will continue to vigorously fight the temporary restraining order to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans.”

In her statement, Saenz writes that the decision to require masks was spurred by the delta variant of the coronavirus and rising hospitalization rates.

“Students under 12 years old are not yet eligible for a vaccine; however, school attendance is mandatory and virtual learning is not an option at this time,” she wrote. “CDC guidelines recommend that for in-person learning, regardless of vaccination status, masks will help reduce the spread of the virus and maintain safe school operations.”

Saenz writes that the district will keep providing masks and hand sanitizer at its facilities, along with continuing contact tracing and sanitization measures.

There was no discussion during the three-minute meeting, but the board did receive a public comment from Brenda Salinas, speaking on behalf of the La Joya American Federation of Teachers. Salinas thanked the board for calling the meeting.

“We want our district leaders to restore the local authority over COVID-19 safety,” she said. “We want our district leaders to tell the governor that they are the local decision makers, and choose when it comes to mask requirements, since our students under 12 are unable to protect themselves from the Delta variant of COVID-19 by vaccination.”