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Coronavirus Education Featured

Socorro ISD passes on mask mandate as other Texas school districts begin to flout governor’s order

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Updated 9:55 p.m. Aug. 10

The Socorro Independent School District school board took no vote Tuesday evening on a face mask policy, as other Texas districts push back against the governor’s order barring schools from requiring face coverings.

None of the seven board members put forth a motion to vote on a districtwide mask mandate after spending an hour discussing the issue behind closed doors.

Their inaction comes as superintendents and local officials challenge Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask mandate ban as more students return to campuses amid a rise in coronavirus cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students, teachers and staff wear a mask inside schools, regardless of vaccination status. The COVID-19 vaccine is not available for students younger than 12.

“The decision that we had upon us tonight could have a big (legal) impact and (bring) some harm to our district and that’s another issue that we don’t want to venture into,” Board President David Morales said after the meeting. Trustees deferred comment to Morales on the issue.

He said the board will revisit a potential mask policy at their Aug. 17 meeting, giving trustees time to see how other districts’ decisions play out — and what, if any, consequences they may face from the governor’s office.

District 5 Trustee Pablo Barrera, right, voiced support for instituting a mask policy at SISD schools during a Tuesday meeting. The board ultimately opted not to vote on such a policy after consulting with their attorney. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Dallas Independent School District was the first in the state to challenge Abbott’s order when on Monday Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced a mask policy for students and teachers. That evening, Austin Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizade said the district will also require masks.

Then on Tuesday, while the SISD board was meeting, Fort Worth Independent School District Superintendent Kent Scribner announced a mask requirement for his district. The Houston Independent School Board is set to discuss and possibly vote on a mask mandate Thursday, with HISD Superintendent Millard House II voicing support for one. 

SISD Interim Superintendent Marta Carmona, however, said Tuesday she would not issue a mandate, saying the district is “obliged” to follow Abbott’s order.

“She’s a servant of the state and she’s taken an oath to abide by the laws of the state, and with that she can’t jeopardize the livelihood of her administration,” Morales said. “She has to be very firm in what she has to do to protect her employees and herself.”

Trustees heard from 13 public speakers Tuesday, nine of whom opposed the mandate. Most were parents who threatened to pull their kids out of the district were the board to take away “parent choice.”

El Dorado High School English language teacher Heather Nieto was one of four people who implored trustees to require masks. She alluded to parents’ citing misinformation when they advocated against a mandate, pointing to how her rhetoric students approach a divisive topic: “We debate, we support our claims with peer-reviewed evidence, and we concede when we’ve heard alternative points of view that make sense and are supported by facts and statistics.”

Heather Nieto, a teacher at El Dorado High School, spoke in favor of a mask mandate during a special SISD board meeting on Tuesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

According to Texas Department of State Health Services data, the state is averaging more than 12,000 new cases a day, more than double last month’s daily new case counts.

Morales said SISD is considering surveying parents to gauge their opinions on a mask policy.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser and County Judge Ricardo Samaniego have asked the governor to give local officials the power to decide what’s best for their communities. Most El Paso students returned to school Aug. 2, with some districts starting July 26.

El Paso’s three largest districts, El Paso, Socorro and Ysleta, reported close to 40 COVID-19 cases among students and staff at the end of their first week back.

A Bexar County district judge on Tuesday temporarily allowed the city of San Antonio and Bexar County to issue mask mandates for districts. It’s unclear how that ruling could affect other districts.

Abbott has only doubled down on his position that districts and municipalities cannot set mask or vaccine mandates, even as the increase in cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

When asked about school districts taking matters into their own hands, Abbott’s office only said they shouldn’t go against the governor’s orders. 

“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’s spokesperson, Renae Eze, said in a statement. “Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for mask mandates is over; now is the time for personal responsibility.”

Government entities that defy his order are at risk of a $1,000 fine, though it’s unclear how the penalty would be applied to districts.

Georgina Pérez, who represents El Paso on the State Board of Education, is fundraising to collect money in support of districts who flout the governor’s order. She declined to say how much she has raised since launching the fundraiser on Aug. 2

“Governor Abbott’s latest politically driven order will kill people. Period,” she wrote in her funding call. “Local leaders of good conscience are obligated to ignore this fraud and act on their own to safeguard the lives of our precious children and the educators who serve them.”

Cover photo: Socorro Independent School District interim Superintendent Marta Carmona, right, and Board President David Morales listen to public speakers who weighed in on a potential districtwide mask policy at an Aug. 10 meeting. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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