Texas Supreme Court Upholds School Mask Mandates

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott addresses former U.S. President Donald Trump at a border security briefing in Weslaco, Texas, June 30, 2021.
(Brandon Bell/Reuters)

The Texas Supreme Court upheld school mask mandates in the state on Thursday, at least temporarily.

After a judge in Travis County, which encompasses the state capital of Austin, issued a temporary restraining order rejecting Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, the decision was appealed to the high court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.

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The ruling was narrow in scope, handing the plaintiffs a victory only because it was stipulated that the case should be reviewed by an appellate court before it arrives at the state’s supreme court.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton petitioned the Supreme Court Tuesday to reverse a series of temporary restraining orders issued by state District Judge Jan Soifer that permitted Harris County and eight school districts to require students and faculty to wear face coverings in public schools, the Texas Tribune reported.

The judge also reasoned that Abbott did not have the enforcement authority to ban mask mandates “against Texas independent school districts.”

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Fifty-eight school districts and eight counties have imposed versions of mask mandates in defiance of Abbott’s executive order prohibiting public institutions from forcing children to wear masks, according to a list Paxton has gathered. Proponents of the governor’s action argue mask-wearing for kids should be left to the discretion of parents, whose tax dollars finance the public school system.

Abbott and Paxton have faced a wave of litigation from counties and districts for weeks over the mask mandate ban. Their offices have claimed that the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 authorizes the governor to act as the “commander in chief” of the state’s response to an emergency or disaster.

After the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio and the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas upheld lower court rulings allowing mask mandates in schools, the Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked the counties from enforcing them, in another minor win for the governor’s administration.

Recently, a disability rights group representing 14 children sued Abbott, alleging that his directive violates federal protections for students with disabilities because it prevents them from attending in-person instruction in a safe environment that minimizes COVID risk.

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Their claim aligns with the argument made by President Biden on Wednesday, when he authorized the U.S. Department of Education to exercise its full oversight authority as well as pursue civil rights legal action against the Republican governors who have banned mask mandates through executive order.

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