This would be a big deal, for all the obvious reasons.
Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday he plans to bring a mask mandate for ratification to the district’s board meeting next week, setting the stage for the state’s largest district to potentially buck a gubernatorial executive order banning such mandates.
Under the proposed mandate, all district students and employees would be expected to wear masks in facilities and buses, House said during Thursday evening’s board meeting.
If approved, the mandate would be among the first of its kind issued by a public school district in the Houston area, and apparently the state, since Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting such directives.
It was not clear Thursday night if other districts plan to follow House’s initiative.
“We know that we are going to get pushback for this,” House said. “We are not going to be able to please everybody. But what we have to understand is: If we have an opportunity to save one life, it is what we should be doing.”
In revealing the proposal, House noted Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and cited an increasing two-week positivity rate in the county and skyrocketing hospitalizations.
“As superintendent of schools of the largest school system in the state of Texas, that concerns me,” House said. “It concerns me greatly.”
If approved, the mandate will bring the district closer to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in updated guidance suggested all individuals in schools not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear a mask indoors.
Children younger than 12 remain unable to get vaccinated.
Abbott’s order prohibited governmental entities from requiring masks. Any local governments or officials who tried to impose such an order could be subjected to a fine of up to $1,000, according to Abbott’s office.
It was not clear how the fine would be given to school districts that challenged the order or whether any entities that announced mandates this week had been fined already.
Here’s the statement from Superintendent House. As noted, Harris County is back at the highest threat level, and Mayor Turner has ordered city workers to wear masks, also presumably in violation of Abbott’s order, so far without any repercussions. It’s hard for me to imagine that Abbott would let this go by, but all we can do is process the events that occur.
Also as noted, other Houston-area school districts were not planning to defy Abbott, though I’m sure they’re watching to see what happens here. What’s puzzling and infuriating is that the updated TEA guidance to school districts says that schools now don’t have to inform parents of positive COVID cases (though they do have to report that information to state and local health departments, and they also don’t have to contact trace, but if they choose to do so, parents can still choose to send their kid to school if they are a “close contact” of a positive COVID case. It’s almost maximally designed to be risky. There is some limited allowance for remote learning, and I don’t know how that may play out. We’re approaching September as if it were still May.
Superintendent House’s proposed action here – it would still need to be approved by the HISD Board of Trustees, who may decide that’s a step too far – is bold but carries a lot of risk. We don’t know what kind of blowback House and HISD could face from Abbott, who clearly values his primary campaign and pandering to the most extreme members of his party more than anything else. When he finally lashes out – again, I cannot imagine him letting this slide – it’s going to be ugly. But against that, Superintendent House has the best of reasons for his action – putting the safety of the kids and the teachers and the staffers first. I’m on his side and I’m impressed by his willingness to take a stand. We’ll just see how far it can go.