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Temporary win for Texas school districts, county on masks

August 14, 2021 GMT

HOUSTON (AP) — Several South Texas school districts along with the state’s most populous county won temporary legal victories on Friday as they seek to override Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, which they argued is making the COVID-19 pandemic worse.

After a two-hour hearing in Travis County, a judge granted temporary restraining orders to Harris County and the South Texas school districts, including Brownsville, La Joya and Edinburg, allowing them to keep mask mandates they have put in place in defiance of Abbott’s executive order.

Harris County and the South Texas school districts are part of a group of cities, counties and school districts from around the state who have sued Abbott in the wake of a dramatic rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations around the state due to the highly contagious Delta variant. They have sought to put the mandates in places as students — many who are still too young to be vaccinated — return to classroom instruction this month.

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“The governor not some county judge, not some school board member is the leader, the focal point of the state’s response to a statewide emergency,” Todd Dickerson, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said during the hearing.

But Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee argued Abbott was not fulfilling his duty to protect Texans as he was preventing local communities from taking measures to protect their residents.

“The governor cannot use executive orders in a way that demonstrably makes the disaster worse,” Menefee said.

Benjamin Dower, another lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said school districts don’t have the authority to ignore state law and that Abbott’s executive order was the same as state law.

Abbott’s executive order doesn’t prevent anyone from wearing a mask but restores “the ability of individuals to make that decision for themselves and their children,” Dower said.

In describing the current state of the pandemic in Texas, Dower said, “We are transitioning out of the worst of it.”

On Friday, state health officials reported 11,261 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas, the most since Jan. 29. In the past month, hospitalizations have increased by 347%. The state is quickly approaching its highest number of hospitalizations during the pandemic — 14,218 on Jan. 11, when Texas was in the throes of a winter surge. State health officials reported 144 deaths on Friday, the most since Feb. 26.

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Officials from hospitals around the state say their facilities are overrun with COVID-19 patients and many don’t have enough nurses and other personnel to adequately staff intensive care unit or ICU beds. They say their staff is experiencing burnout, frustration and depression as younger individuals are getting sick and some hospitals have been forced to set up tents outside their facilities to handle the overflow of patients. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Friday during a news conference that ICU beds for children were full in the 19-county area in and around Dallas.

David Campbell, an attorney representing the South Texas school districts, said when Abbott did issue a mask mandate in July 2020, during last year’s summer surge, the state had fewer hospitalizations, between 6,000 and 7,000.

“I got four kids ... They don’t like wearing masks. No one does but, they have gotten used to it. It is a minor inconvenience to address a very serious risk,” Campbell said.

Before she granted the temporary restraining orders, state District Judge Jan Soifer said she was troubled that Abbott’s executive order was “prohibiting a requirement that the schools and the local authorities and the people who generally Texas relies on to make decisions for its citizens think are necessary.”

Harris County, where Houston is located and which has 4.7 million residents, has joined Bexar, Dallas and Fort Bend counties along with San Antonio in getting temporary restraining orders against Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

On Friday, the Galveston school district joined a growing list of Texas districts that have put in place mask mandates. Others include school districts in Austin, Crowley, Dallas, Hidalgo, Houston, La Joya, San Antonio and Spring. Fort Worth’s school district had also put in place a mask mandate but a judge on Friday granted a temporary restraining order blocking it.

Similar lawsuits by school districts i n other states have also been filed.

But the legal victories by the Texas counties and school districts might be short lived.

The lawsuits were expected to end up before the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, which has often ruled in favor of Abbott.

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Associated Press writer Jill Zeman Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70