A coalition of Rio Grande Valley school districts filed a lawsuit against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday, demanding the ability to make their own decisions on face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The La Joya Independent School District, the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, the Hidalgo Independent School District, the Brownsville Independent School District and the Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District filed the lawsuit Thursday afternoon in Travis County. They were joined by the Crowley Independent School District, which is located near Fort Worth.
The school districts sued Abbott over an executive order he signed in May, which prohibited local school boards from requiring students and teachers to wear face masks.
“I’m sure the governor may mean well, but he’s up in Austin,” said Hidalgo school board President Rafael “Ralph” Garza. “He doesn’t know the Valley like we know the Valley.”
All six districts are represented by O’Hanlon, Demerath & Castillo, a law firm with offices in the Valley, Austin and San Antonio.
During the past month, the number of patients with COVID-19 at Hidalgo County hospitals jumped from 52 to 425, according to data released by the county Health and Human Services Department. The number of people in local intensive care units skyrocketed from 21 to 98.
Students younger than 12 years old can’t be vaccinated. Many parents worry about sending them to classrooms where others may not be masked — or vaccinated.
To protect students, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that everyone wear masks.
“CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status,” according to a bulletin posted by the CDC on July 27.
Abbott, though, had signed an executive order in May that prohibited them from requiring anyone to wear a mask.
“No governmental entity, including a county, city, school district, and public health authority, and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering,” according to the executive order.
When local governments pushed back, Abbott doubled down.
“Under Executive Order GA-38, no governmental entity can require or mandate the wearing of masks,” Abbott said in a statement issued Wednesday. “The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates.”
School boards across Texas found themselves caught between the CDC and Abbott.
“The way government really works is local people elect their local officials to help them with their local issues,” Garza said. “COVID, yes, it’s a worldwide concern. It’s a worldwide problem. Everyone has to do their part to combat it. But he’s not letting us do our part to combat it.”
During meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, school boards in La Joya, Edinburg, Hidalgo and Brownsville decided to challenge the executive order in court.
“It’s not wanting to disrespect the state or anything,” said La Joya school board President Oscar “Coach” Salinas. “It’s just the fact that our purpose is to serve our community and our purpose is to hear our people.”
Salinas said he was struck by something a parent said during the public comment portion of the La Joya ISD school board meeting on Wednesday afternoon.
“The lady said it in Spanish. And she said it well: ‘You all need to do what you were elected for,’” Salinas said.
Edinburg CISD school board President Miguel “Mike” Farias said the district just wanted to follow recommendations from local experts and the CDC.
“Basically, in a nutshell, we’re trying to do everything possible to keep our kids safe,” Farias said. “That’s all.”