HOUSTON (AP) — Defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates continued Wednesday as more Texas school districts and communities announced plans to require students to wear face coverings and another county scored a legal victory in its efforts to issue such mandates amid a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the state.
In the Houston suburb of Spring, the school district's 33,000 students, along with faculty, staff and visitors will be required to wear masks starting Monday.
The Spring school district joins ones in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth in requiring students and staff to wear masks on campuses and other district buildings. The mandates go against an executive order Abbott repeated last month banning mask mandates by any state, county or local government entity.
"I don't want to focus so much on defying the governor. We are ensuring that our kids our safe. We're ensuring that our teachers are safe and we're ensuring that the learning needs for each student are met," Spring school district Superintendent Rodney Watson told reporters Wednesday.
Late Wednesday, officials in Fort Bend County, located just southwest of Houston, announced they had filed a lawsuit seeking to override Abbott's ban on mask mandates and had also reinstated an order requiring that masks be worn inside all public school buildings and county facilities. A judge later Wednesday granted the county a temporary restraining order against Abbott's ban on mask mandates.
Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Abbott, said in a statement that violating the governor's executive orders "and violating parental rights — is not the way to do it."
The dispute over mask mandates in Texas comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to rise, increasing to 10,463 on Wednesday, the most since Feb. 3. In the last two weeks, hospitalizations have increased by 85%. State health officials reported 112 deaths on Wednesday, the first time the total surpassed 100 since March 10. Hospitals around the state are overrun with COVID-19 patients and many don't have enough nurses and other personnel to adequately staff intensive care unit or ICU beds.
"If this continues and I have no reason to believe that it will not, there is no way my hospital is going to be able to handle this. There is no way the region is going to be able to handle this. I don't want to be an alarmist...But I am frightened by what is coming," Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System, which runs the Houston area's public hospitals, told lawmakers Tuesday during a meeting of the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Abbott on Wednesday announced the state has arranged for the deployment of more than 2,500 medical personnel to help hospitals care for the increasing number of COVID-19 patients across Texas.
Outside the Houston school district's headquarters on Wednesday, a group of teachers unions along with parents and students asked area districts to defy Abbott's order and issue their own mask mandates.
"A mask mandate is not a risk to anyone. Not requiring masks puts children and their families at risk," said Aly Fitzpatrick, whose twin sons are set to start second grade at Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, located northwest of Houston.
The superintendent of Houston's school district, the state's largest, planned to ask his school board to approve a mask mandate during a Thursday meeting.
On Wednesday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins signed an executive order requiring that masks be worn inside schools, county buildings and businesses. This was issued after a state district judge on Tuesday granted a temporary restraining order against Abbott's executive order, allowing Jenkins to issue the mask mandate
The legal ruling from Dallas County follows one from earlier Tuesday when another judge issued a different temporary restraining order, allowing officials in San Antonio and Bexar County to mandate masks in public schools.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced the state had filed a petition with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down Dallas County's mask mandate.
"The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates. The state of Texas will continue to vigorously fight the temporary restraining order to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans," Abbott said.
Paxton's office on Wednesday issued an opinion suggesting the federal government might have lacked the authority to issue its order requiring people to wear masks on all forms of public transportation.
Earlier Wednesday, Texas Children's Hospital in Houston became the latest hospital system in the country to require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In April, Houston Methodist became the first major U.S. health care system to require vaccinations for its employees. A group of employees sued Houston Methodist over the vaccine mandate, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit.
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