Abbott finds little support from lawmakers for bill banning mask mandates

María Méndez Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott twice has issued orders barring school districts from mandating masks, and in early September, as the school year was about to start, he urged the Legislature to pass a bill enshrining his orders into law.

But more than 50 school districts have defied his orders — among the latest is the Marble Falls district, a conservative area where local leaders typically are aligned with the governor — amid a rise in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, including among children.

Abbott also has suffered defeats in the courts, as judges have ruled that he overstepped his authority under the Texas Disaster Act. The cases ultimately will be decided by the Texas Supreme Court.

Now, Abbott is finding little appetite at the Legislature for a bill barring mask mandates. No senator has filed legislation related to mask mandates and in the House, just five Republicans signed on as cosponsors to a bill filed by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, to prevent public schools from requiring students to wear face masks.

On Monday night, Leach retreated, offering to change House Bill 141 to allow mask mandates in schools, but with an opt-out provision for parents.

Messages left with Abbott’s office were not returned Tuesday.

But influential conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan protested on Twitter: “With #GOP majorities in both chambers of the #TxLege, and a governor who asked for legislation stopping school districts from issuing mask mandates, this should be easy… except for Republicans like @leachfortexas who seek to compromise with Democrats at every turn.”

Leach reached a deal with Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, to “leave it up to the individual school districts, with the only caveat being that it ought to have a parent opt out provision in there,” Dutton said.

Dutton had filed HB 164 that would leave a decision on requiring masks up to a district’s school board or governing body.

Leach and said he wanted to protect parents’ choice not to have their kids wear a mask for medical, religious or philosophical reasons, similar to exemptions allowed for vaccine requirements in schools.

“If a child walks into a school without a mask, I don’t believe it should be the policy of any school district to prevent that child from entering the doors of their public school, especially if they have their parents’ permission to opt out of that requirement,” Leach told fellow lawmakers.

Some Democrats and members of the public raised concerns about an opt-out provision.

“I understand parental choice, but that parental choice is not limited to their child,” said Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, pointing out that children under 12 are still ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. He also noted the delta variant has led to more severe COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among children.

Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, suggested adding a “trigger provision” or language that would grant school boards more flexibility if another pandemic arose in the future.

“I’m just worried how do we make sure we’re not tying the hands of local officials when something, God forbid, worse comes down the pike,” he said.

Public health leaders in Williamson County have recommended universal or more stringent mask requirements in school districts such as Leander, which enacted a mask policy with an opt-out provision and has seen more than 500 COVID-19 cases. Officials there temporarily closed several classrooms last week amid clusters of infections. Other district administrators in the area have shuttered classrooms, including in the Hays district, where there is no mask mandate.

Advocacy groups such as Texans Care for Children say mask requirements are necessary to avoid classroom closures and oppose “any steps by the Legislature or the Governor to restrict school districts’ ability to implement universal masking.”

“After everything that kids have been through over the last year and a half, it’s devastating to think that Texas schools are going to have to keep closing because they don’t have mask mandates to stop these outbreaks,” said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children.

Some who testified at the hearing opposed HB 164 and any legislation allowing school boards to mandate masks even with a parental opt-out, but Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said it was best to leave such decisions to communities through their locally elected school boards.

Leach added that the proposed compromise would clarify differing mask policies that have cropped up in the state and would codify parents’ rights into law.

As filed, Dutton’s bill did not include a mask opt out, but he signaled the final legislation would include it, at least for medical conditions.

Both bills were left pending Monday night.