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A North Texas school district has made masks a part of its dress code for the academic year, hoping to exploit a possible loophole in Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide ban on mandates regarding face coverings.
The Paris Independent School District of about 4,000 students announced that it would include the masks in the dress code after its board of trustees said it was “concerned about the health and safety of its students and employees.” The district, about 110 miles northeast of Dallas, noted that Abbott’s executive order last month did not suspend a chapter in the Texas Education Code that gives school districts power to oversee health and safety measures, thus allowing Paris ISD officials to elect to “amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority.”
“The Board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues,” the district said in a statement. “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.”
Paris ISD appears to be the first in the state to use its authority to set a dress code requiring students and employees to wear masks, potentially setting up other school districts to do the same.
The school board held an emergency meeting Tuesday and voted 5 to 1 in favor of the measure, which will be revisited at the monthly trustee meetings and has the potential to be changed at a later date, according to the Paris News.
“For health reasons, masks are required for all employees and students to mitigate flu, cold, pandemic, and any other communicable diseases,” the measure reads.
The governor’s office encouraged people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, but it said that “the time for mask mandates is over.”
“We are all working to protect Texas children and those most vulnerable among us, but violating the governor’s executive orders — and violating parental rights — is not the way to do it,” Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said in an email to The Washington Post.
“There is no loophole,” she continued. “While a school district cannot mandate or prohibit masks, parents and guardians have the right to decide whether their child will wear a mask or not.”
Paris ISD did not respond to requests for comment early Wednesday.
The announcement came the same day that Abbott’s office said the governor had tested positive for the coronavirus. The governor said in a video posted to Twitter late Tuesday that he was vaccinated and not experiencing any symptoms.
Abbott is among the Republican governors who have resisted public health mandates aimed at stemming the tide of the virus’s delta variant, saying that parents should decide whether their children wear masks in school. But surging infections and hospitalizations in Texas have left many parents worried about sending their children back into classrooms where others are not masked and could transmit the virus.
Several school districts and some Texas counties — including Bexar County, home to San Antonio, and Dallas County — have defied the governor’s order. The Texas Supreme Court recently announced Abbott’s ban on mask mandates will be allowed to stand, at least temporarily. Bexar County and the Dallas Independent School District said they will maintain their mask mandates despite the ruling.
After a parent ripped off a teacher’s face mask in Austin’s Eanes Independent School District, the superintendent advised those in the community to “not fight mask wars in our schools.”
Texas has faced record-breaking numbers of covid-19 cases because of the highly transmissible delta variant and the millions of people who remain unvaccinated. The state recorded more than 24,000 new cases Tuesday and has averaged more than 15,500 new daily cases over the past week, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
More than 12,300 people in Texas are hospitalized for covid-19, including about 3,100 who were occupying beds in intensive care units as of early Wednesday. Texas and Florida account for 40 percent of new hospitalizations nationwide, the White House said last week.
About 45 percent of the state is fully vaccinated.
Like in other cities throughout the state, doctors and nurses in Paris are facing a dire situation during the fourth wave of the pandemic. Amanda Green, chief medical officer for Paris Regional Medical Center, told local media that the hospital had run out of ventilators for patients and needed to find additional ones in response to the surge.
At the emergency meeting at Paris High School this week, employees, parents and health professionals debated for more than an hour over the merits of having masks be a part of the district’s dress code. Clifton Fendley, the trustee who was the lone dissenting vote, said that while he was not against masks to help mitigate the spread of the virus, he believed the loophole to circumvent Abbott’s ban went against the board’s oath of office, according to Paris News.
Though most in attendance implored the board to require students and employees to wear masks to help curb the spread of the delta variant, several parents argued that it was their choice whether their children wore face coverings at school. One of them was Joshua Vorron, who claimed that his child “suffered mental health consequences” in complying with last year’s mask mandate, local media reported.
“Shame on you,” Vorron said as he exited the cafeteria this week.
The district welcomes students back to school Thursday.