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EPISD ends campus mask requirements

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Update Oct. 5, 3:30 p.m: This story was updated to reflect EPISD’s decision not to file a misdemeanor charge against the 17-year-old student who was arrested at Monday’s meeting.

El Paso’s largest school district will no longer enforce mask wearing, effective immediately.

The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees voted 5-2 Monday to rescind its face mask requirement for students, teachers, staff and visitors that had been in place since Aug. 18.

Trustees Al Velarde, Daniel Call, Israel Irrobali, Freddy Klayel-Avalos and Isabel Hernandez voted to do away with the requirement. Trustees Josh Acevedo and Leah Hanany voted to keep it in place.

A small crowd gathered Monday for a special meeting of the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees to discuss mask mandates. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Monday’s vote came after the 8th Court of Appeals ended El Paso’s countywide universal indoor face mask mandate on Thursday. However, because EPISD is part of a separate lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott, it could have continued requiring mask use at its campuses and facilities.

EPISD is the only El Paso County district among a coalition of more than 20 districts challenging the governor’s ban on local governments from requiring people to wear face coverings. A Travis County district court judge granted them a temporary injunction against Abbott in August, which the governor is appealing.

EPISD will remain a party to that suit, Board President Velarde said. However, due to the legal uncertainties over whether EPISD could still be sued, Velarde said he favored suspending the mandate.

“I don’t know how protected we are,” Velarde said, adding, “My personal opinion is that it’s high-risk.”

Trustees voted to give interim Superintendent Vince Sheffield the authority to reinstate EPISD’s mask mandate if the county health authority brings the countywide requirement back.

EPISD teacher Xavier Miranda urged trustees to keep the mandate in place until younger students are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Acevedo said he voted against suspending EPISD’s mandate to protect unvaccinated and immunocompromised students. “I worry about the next few months, especially as it’s getting colder,” he said of a potential rise in coronavirus cases.

The Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory committee is scheduled to discuss vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 on Oct. 26. The FDA could soon after authorize emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine for this age group.

A small group of mask opponents disrupted the start of the meeting, which resulted in Burges High School senior Skyler Brown being handcuffed by EPISD police and forcibly removed from the boardroom.

Skyler Brown, a student at Burges High School, was escorted from the El Paso Independent School District board meeting on Monday for refusing to wear a mask. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Brown “was taken into custody under the impression that he was a juvenile,” said EPISD spokesperson Gustavo Reveles. Upon police learning Brown was 17 years old, and considered an adult under the Texas Penal Code, he was released to his mother “pending a paper referral to the district attorney’s office” on a misdemeanor disrupting a public meeting charge, Reveles said.

EPISD decided not to file charges against Brown, Reveles said Tuesday. The Class B misdemeanor would have carried a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in county jail if convicted.

Brown and his mother are part of a vocal contingent of families who have regularly attended meetings — and begrudgingly put on a mask after being asked repeatedly by district police — since the mandate took effect.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Skyler Brown’s school. He is a student at Burges High School.

Cover photo: El Paso Independent School District Trustee Daniel Call talked with opponents of mask mandates ahead of Monday’s school board 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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