Coronavirus

HISD Superintendent House Says He'll Ask School Board To Approve Mask Mandate For District Students and Staff

HISD Superintendent Millard House II reversed course Thursday, arguing on behalf of a district mask requirement.
HISD Superintendent Millard House II reversed course Thursday, arguing on behalf of a district mask requirement. Screenshot
Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II announced Thursday night that he will ask the HISD school board to approve a face mask mandate for all students and staff on HISD campuses, buses and facilities during next week’s board meeting given Harris County’s decision to raise the local COVID-19 threat level to a red alert earlier that day.

If approved, the district’s mask rule would run afoul of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order issued in May banning school districts from requiring masks for staff and students.

“We know that we’re going to get pushback for this. We know that people will be angry, some will be happy, [but] we won’t be able to please everybody,” House said. “But what we have to understand is if we have an opportunity to save one life, it’s what we should be doing.”

“This is something I’ve labored over for the last week or so as I’ve watched these numbers come up,” House continued.

The announcement was an about-face from House. On Wednesday during a press conference with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner touting the upcoming month-long back-to-school COVID-19 vaccine drive sponsored by HISD, other local school districts and the city and Harris County health departments, House gave no indication that he intended to issue a mask mandate at HISD schools.

When House was asked Wednesday if he had considered following the lead of Turner (who earlier this week issued a new order requiring all city employees to wear masks at work) and buck Abbott’s order barring mask mandates under penalty of a $1,000 fine, House said the district’s stance on masks was “not a mandate, of course, but a strong suggestion” that they be worn by students and staff on HISD campuses.

At the Thursday night agenda review meeting during which House first proposed the new mask rule, he cited Harris County’s decision earlier that day to raise the county’s COVID-19 threat level to a red alert due to the rampant spread of the Delta coronavirus variant throughout the Houston area that’s sent local hospitalizations skyrocketing to levels seen only during previous deadly waves of the pandemic. He also referenced the troubling amount of COVID-19 detected in the city’s wastewater by the Houston Health Department (which local health officials say is a warning sign that local COVID-19 case counts are about to rise substantially) as another reason for issuing a mask order.

Since House's announcement, Abbott hasn't said a word about how he might challenge HISD’s mask mandate if it is approved by the school board. However, Abbott did signal his commitment to barring school districts from issuing mask requirements when on Thursday he called a second straight special session of the Texas Legislature to begin on Saturday. Among the new agenda items he added to state lawmakers’ to-do list was passing legislation that would codify a ban on school mask mandates into state law.
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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