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Texas' largest school district approves mask mandate, violating executive order

Aug. 12 (UPI) -- The Houston Independent School Board, the largest in the state of Texas, unanimously supported instituting a mask mandate effective immediately for all board facilities, in violation of a controversial executive order prohibiting such directives on the grounds it infringes on the rights of parents to oversee their children's healthcare.

The board is the latest and the largest to stand against Gov. Greg Abbott's mid-May executive order that prohibits government entities, including school districts and public health authorities, from requiring face coverings. It was updated in late July to also ban so-called vaccine passports.

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The board voted 8-0 Thursday night in favor of the mask mandate after each board trustee had two minutes to speak with many stating they received an unprecedented amount of emails from constituents in support of masking students, staff and others in school facilities.

"The medical professionals who came here tonight are drowning right now," Trustee Anne Sung said during the meeting. "We are code red right now in Houston and we need to be part of the public health solution. So I'm honored to support this step."

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Trustee Elizabeth Santos said that safety is their number one priority and that the issue of masking isn't something to be politicized.

She said during her allotted two minutes prior to the vote that she was scared that night as a new mother to enter a room where others may not be thinking about their well-being and the possibility of her bringing COVID-19 home to her son afterward.

"I know there are new moms out there that are teaching our children. There are teachers out there that have to teach our children every day and think 'what are we bringing home to our families?'" an emotional Santos said.

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Trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels echoed this sentiment, stating the issue of masking is not simply about the students in class but those who teach and work to ensure they are educated.

"Our children are our greatest accomplishments, our greatest loves and so we'll do everything we can to keep our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews safe, and with that being said, that is our most important asset. So are the teachers, bus drivers, support staff, cafeteria workers to their families," she said. "I hope you all understand that I will be voting with the understanding of what is best for our children and the staff. We just cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater."

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The vote was in support of Superintendent Millard House II's decision to mandate masks in all school facilities and buses, regardless of one's vaccination status.

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House told the trustees during the meeting that the district will follow science and work with health professionals concerning the mandate in order for it to be lifted as soon as possible.

Our focus is to keep a close eye on the data ... to ensure that we're making the most informed decisions," he said. "Our hope is that data continues to head or start to head in the right direction so this can be as temporary as possible."

The Houston school district, which includes 276 campuses, serves some 197,000 students and employees 27,000 people.

Its decision was made in the same week that the Austin school district, with its 74,000 students, and the Dallas school district of more than 153,000 announced mask mandates of their own.

"I am responsible for the safety, health and welfare of each and every one of our students and staff," Austin Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said in a statement. "If I err, I must err on the side of ensuring that we've been overly cautious, not that we have fallen short."

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Its mandate started Wednesday.

The Dallas school board, whose mandate went into effect Tuesday, rejected the premise that Abbott has the power to dictate how it protects its staff and students.

"Gov. Abbott's order does not limit the district's rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students," the district said in a statement. "Dallas ISD remains committed to the safety of our students and staff."

Ahead of Houston's scheduled vote, Abbott, a Republican, warned that any district that goes against his executive order will be taken to court.

"Any school district, public university or local government official that decides to defy GA-38 -- which prohibits gov't entities from mandating masks -- will be taken to court," he tweeted. "The path forward relies on personal responsibility -- not government mandates."

Texas is not the only Republican-led state that has prohibit mask mandates in schools to see districts go against their governor's executive orders.

In Florida, several school districts have instituted mask mandates despite Gov. Ron DeSantis not only barring them from doing so with an executive order issued in late July but threatening those who issue such directives with pay cuts.

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