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Here’s how Texas schools are trying to get around governor’s ban on mask mandates

Coronavirus

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(CNN) — Some Texas school districts and students are seeking ways around Republican Gov. Greg Abbott‘s ban on mask mandates as the state grapples with a spike of coronavirus cases.

One of those cases is Abbott himself: The second-term governor, who has played to his party’s base and blocked health mandates intended to slow the pandemic’s spread ahead of a reelection bid next year and a potential presidential run in 2024, has tested positive for COVID-19, his office said Tuesday. He’s now isolating at the governor’s mansion and receiving the same treatment then-President Donald Trump did last year.

The governor’s positive test comes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases that has already overwhelmed Texas hospitals as the school year begins.

Abbott — like other Republican governors eyeing 2024 presidential bids, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis and South Dakota’s Kristi Noem — has long opposed pandemic protocols such as mask mandates and business closures. Earlier this year, he signed an executive order banning local governments — including school districts — from requiring masks.

Increasingly, though, Texas schools and districts are ignoring Abbott’s order.

On Tuesday night, several school districts voted to require masks. One — the Paris Independent School District, which includes about 3,900 students in northeast Texas — opted to do so through a loophole designed to get around Abbott’s order: It amended the district’s dress code for students and employees to require masks.

“The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” the district’s board said in a short statement explaining its legal argument.

Already, at least four Texas school districts have closed their facilities amid coronavirus outbreaks. Schools in Dallas, Houston, Austin and El Paso are among those that have moved to require masks, defying Abbott. The local mask mandates have triggered a raft of legal battles in state courts.

In federal court, the group Disability Rights Texas, representing a group of young students with disabilities and underlying medical conditions, on Wednesday sued Abbott and the Texas Education Agency over the mask mandate ban. The students are under age 12 and therefore ineligible to be vaccinated, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says that if “school districts are unable to implement COVID-19 protocol as they each deem appropriate, parents of medically vulnerable students will have to decide whether to keep their children at home or risk placing them in an environment that presents a serious risk to their health and safety,” which means “the Governor’s Executive Order and TEA’s Public Health Guidance unlawfully prevent school districts from complying with the ADA and Section 504’s requirement to provide students with disabilities access to a public school education.”

The growing resistance to Abbott’s ban on mask mandates is unlikely to hurt the governor politically with his party’s base.

Just a day before Abbott tested positive, he attended a crowded, maskless gathering of the Republican Club of Heritage Ranch, north of Dallas.

But the issue has become a flashpoint between Abbott and local officials across Texas, who say they are trying to save lives in a state averaging more than 15,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations a day.

“The governor is looking at polls. He’s no longer even talking to his own medical experts,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who sought a far-reaching mask mandate in recent days but was blocked by the Texas Supreme Court from imposing fines on businesses that flout it, said on CNN this week. “He’s looking at polls of what Republican primary voters want to hear, and working from there.”

“We’re on a steep upward trajectory because the leadership in Texas refuses to lead and blames this on a lack of personal responsibility from others,” Jenkins said.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, a 2018 Texas US Senate candidate and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, has used his social media feeds to track school board meetings across the state.

“More school boards will meet tonight, listed below. Please show up and urge your trustees to require masks to keep kids safe,” he tweeted Wednesday, along with a list of 12 districts set to meet later in the evening.

The fight over local mask mandates has also put Abbott and other Republican governors on a collision course with President Joe Biden’s administration.

Biden said Wednesday that he was directing the US secretary of education to use federal authorities — and, if necessary, legal action — against governors “who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators” attempting to protect students from the virus.

Biden said that if a governor wanted to cut a school official’s salary for requiring masks — as DeSantis threatened to do last week — the federal government will pay those salaries with American Rescue Plan dollars.

“As I’ve said before, if you’re not going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who’s trying,” Biden said, adding that he would not “sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”

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