Houston ISD Formally Issues Mask Mandate As County Legal Fights Over Masks Heat Up

Millard House II announced Wednesday he had the HISD board's blessing to flout Gov. Greg Abbott on requiring masks.
Millard House II announced Wednesday he had the HISD board's blessing to flout Gov. Greg Abbott on requiring masks. Screenshot
The rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19 throughout Texas and the resulting surge of sick coronavirus patients filling up state hospitals ahead of the upcoming school year has caused local leaders in Texas’ largest counties and school districts to push back against Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempts to forbid mask mandates by school districts and local governments through executive orders.

On Wednesday morning, Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II announced that HISD will have a formal mask mandate for the 2021-22 school year. House had previously said he would recommend a district mask mandate but would put it up for a vote during Thursday’s school board meeting. But while Thursday’s vote will still likely take place, House told members of the media Wednesday that the board had informed him he had their unanimous support to issue the mandate.

“When I arrived in Houston six weeks ago we were at about 4 percent community spread. Right now we’re above 16 percent,” House said, in explaining why he had changed his mind about a mask mandate in the district’s 276 schools.

“When I arrived in Houston six weeks ago we were at about 4 percent community spread. Right now we’re above 16 percent." - Millard House II, Houston ISD Superintendent

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HISD now joins Dallas ISD and Austin ISD; the two other districts announced their own mask mandates in defiance of Abbott’s executive order forbidding such mandates under punishment of a $1,000 fine.

HISD wasn’t the only local organization to up the ante on coronavirus precautions Wednesday, as Texas Children’s Hospital announced it’s now the latest Houston healthcare institution to require its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to keep their jobs. Texas Children’s joins Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine as the fourth local healthcare group to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for its workforce.

In an email to employees announcing the move, Texas Children’s President and CEO Mark Wallace argued that “By taking this step, we are further protecting the health of our team members, patients and community. As one of the nation’s largest and top-rated children’s hospitals, it is our responsibility to take a stand and protect those who place their trust in us, many of whom are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.”

With the new mandate in place, all Texas Children’s workers, both part-time and full-time, have to prove they’ve taken at least one dose of one of the available coronavirus vaccines by 5 p.m. on September 21. Any employee taking one of the two-shot vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna has to get their second shot by 5 p.m. October 19, Wallace’s message read, explaining that certain employees can receive exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs or a narrow set of medical conditions.

Wallace wrote that “This is not a decision we took lightly, and said it only came after “weeks of research, keeping a close eye on the curve and numerous discussions about what is best for our entire organization.”

“Ultimately with the surge in positive cases — with most deaths and hospitalizations being among the unvaccinated population — I, along with the Board of Trustees, remain confident that this is the right decision,” he continued.

While Texas hospital chains and large school districts have attempted to fight back against Delta’s rapid spread through vaccine mandates and mask requirements, respectively, Texas county governments have taken the route of challenging Abbott’s ban on local entities issuing mask mandates in the court system.

In two separate cases Tuesday, state district judges in Dallas and Bexar counties responded to lawsuits led by those county’s Democratic leaders by granting temporary restraining orders against Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates in both counties, each citing the imminent danger caused by the Delta variant in their decisions. San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Dr. Junda Woo responded by immediately announcing a new face mask requirement for all facilities run by the city of San Antonio and in all Bexar County public schools, while Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced via Twitter that he would likely issue a similar emergency order after getting “feedback from health, education and business leaders.”

While big wins for Bexar County and Dallas County officials who want more power to issue COVID-minded restrictions, both rulings are temporary. The Bexar County decision will be revisited during a Monday hearing, and the Dallas County ruling will stay in effect at least through August 24.

On Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines (with County Judge Lina Hidalgo joining fellow Democrats Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis) in favor of allowing Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee to move forward with a lawsuit of his own against Abbott’s mask orders. Menefee hadn’t filed a lawsuit as of early Wednesday afternoon, but celebrated the ruling from Commissioners Court in a Tweet Tuesday night.

Instead of getting involved in another legal dispute over mask mandates, Fort Bend County Judge KP George went the route of pleading with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. In a letter George sent to Morath Wednesday, George asked the commissioner and former school board member to use the weight of his agency to push back against Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates, and to allow additional funding for virtual schooling options for families who would rather keep their kids out of schools until local COVID-19 conditions improve.

“As a parent and former school board member yourself, I know that you know well the tough decisions local leaders face in protecting our children and their educators,” George wrote to Morath. “By actively acknowledging the current crisis and advocating for these measures, we can keep our children in school this year and keep them safe.”

George’s full letter to Morath can be read below:
Margaret Downing contributed to this article.
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards