Hidalgo County officials testify at mask mandate hearing

Hidalgo County officials, one citing an “explosion” of case activity locally, were among several who provided hours of testimony before a district court judge in Travis County on Monday regarding a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott over the authority to mandate masks at a local level.

Seven Rio Grande Valley school districts sued the governor earlier this month over the ability to implement mask mandates at a local level, a step expressly prohibited by an executive order Abbott issued in May.

A temporary restraining order allowed the districts to begin the school year with mandates in place. An order issued by Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez issued just before the start of the school year also mandates masks, unless districts vote to opt out of it.

Although Monday’s hearing was scheduled to wrap up that afternoon, state District Judge Catherine Mauzy decided to let the proceedings bleed into Tuesday.

“This issue is much too important to too many people for me not to allow the evidence to make the record and to hear the argument of all counsel,” she said. “So, rather than trying to rush, I’d rather reconvene tomorrow even though this was grossly under-announced. But we’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll finish up.”

Dr. Melendez was one of the Valley witnesses to testify at Monday’s hearing, saying he believed low vaccination rates among people under the age of 18 and new COVID-19 variants have caused an “explosion” in case activity.

“Last week at one point we had 61 children in our hospitals. Sixty-one. That’s more than Oklahoma; that’s more than Arkansas,” Melendez said. “So we were unfortunately seeing a much different type of population of people getting sick, and our numbers were dramatically increased.”

Melendez told the court he doesn’t believe those figures have peaked either, saying he felt the amount of COVID-19 cases is being underestimated while the number of vaccines being administered is being overestimated.

Masks are a mainstream mitigation measure against the virus, Melendez said, noting that in the last 15 days more than 500 students and staff have been infected with the coronavirus locally.

“And I believe that this trend will continue to increase until (mitigating) factors are applied,” he said.

Melendez noted that all but one district has not opted out of adhering to his mandate, but after testifying to as much, he said he couldn’t confirm to The Monitor which district.

The court also heard from representatives from Hidalgo County’s largest school district, among them Edinburg CISD Board President Mike Farias, who said there’s been little local opposition to the district’s mask mandate.

“It’s going very well,” he said. “As a matter of fact, on our first day of opening school our superintendent received a total of four phone calls, with expressing them not agreeing with the mask mandates. And at the same time we had a participation of over 28,000 students.”

Social distancing is a major challenge for the district, Farias said, especially in hallways during class changes. He said the district required masks based on the recommendation of local and national health professionals, characterizing it as just another weapon in the arsenal for fighting the pandemic.

“So we were going by the recommendations of the experts,” he said. “And like I said before, we’re not health experts, so we’ve got to go by the recommendations of the health experts. And that’s all we’re doing. We’re just using their recommendation, their expertise, to do everything in our power to keep our kids safe. Plain and simple.”

The court heard from several school officials Monday who noted the educational importance of keeping students in classrooms, among them La Joya ISD Superintendent Gisela Saenz.

Saenz said the district needs masks to accomplish that.

“The mask mandate for La Joya ISD is critical because we need to make sure that we keep students in school, and we believe that the mask mandate can help us (do) that,” she said. “As I’ve explained, we do have multiple mitigation strategies, but we do know from the CDC that masks do help prevent the increase of cases of COVID-19.”

Witnesses faced questions from Abbott’s attorneys asking them about their personal credentials in the medical and legal fields, or lack thereof. They were also asked whether districts had conducted community surveys on mask use, how mandates would be enforced and about possible exemptions for the requirements.