A battle is raging in Texas over whether schools can mandate mask-wearing, with the state’s Supreme Court so far allowing mandates to stay in place. But a small district northeast of Dallas found a workaround to find a different way to keep masks in use—dress codes.
The Paris ISD Board of Trustees voted earlier this month to include masks in the district’s dress code for its approximately 4,000 students, as well as staff. An executive order from the governor may have banned schools from requiring a face covering, but the district’s attorney assured trustees the order did nothing to supersede the Texas law that gives them authority to govern the district—including rules on what students wear.
“It’s not a loophole, it’s a law that’s been there forever,” Dennis Eichelbaum, Paris ISD’s general counsel, told WFAA. “And so the school district felt comfortable in making its decision based on the fact that that law was still in place.”
The fight for control over mask mandates is making adversaries of school officials who want it to be part of their COVID-19 safety protocols and state officials who are determined to keep face coverings from being a classroom requirement.
School districts in the Lone Star State began bucking the mask mandate ban as the first day of classes drew near and the Delta variant of the virus spread. It started with larger districts in metro areas, accustomed to locking horns with the governor over local control, and soon spread around the state. The Texas Attorney General’s Office is tracking dozens of “non-compliant” school districts with masking requirements一including Paris ISD.
School leaders are typically able to cultivate buy-in to do what they believe is best for students, says Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. But tensions around issues like masking and COVID-19 vaccines have changed that.
“In my career, this is definitely the most challenging time for school leaders because you have all kinds of different issues going on with COVID,” Brown says.
Battles similar to the ones in Texas are playing out across the country. Officials in Florida and Arizona have threatened districts with funding cuts over mask rules, and Missouri’s attorney general is taking legal action to stop school mask requirements. An Iowa mother is joining the ranks of parents suing to keep states from blocking mask mandates in schools.
Brown says when school districts move forward with mask mandates, it’s a decision they have made with local input. When Paris ISD made its masking decision, for instance, the board heard from health officials begging for the mandate, as well as some residents and teachers who were opposed.
Even when districts choose not to require masks, he adds, it’s done with their understanding of the community.
“If somebody gets sick and dies, whether that’s a teacher or bus driver or a child, that’s very personal. We go to church with them on the weekends and we shop with them at the grocery store and we go to ball games,” Brown says. “I think you’ve found a number of communities that have said, ‘We’re going to take care of each other.’”
Looking for Common Ground
Brown hopes that parents and others who oppose mask mandates in their schools will keep things professional.
“I think one of the bigger concerns is this has become such a divisive issue, and we have got to find a way in our communities to work together cooperatively and not let the national politics divide our local communities,” Brown says.
Some parents have crossed the line in their opposition to mask rules. One teacher near Austin reportedly had her face mask ripped off by a parent during a Meet the Teacher night. A California dad is accused of assaulting a teacher during an argument about masks.
“Some of the messages being sent to our school leaders, even our teachers, are so aggressive, inappropriate and threatening,” he says. “These are people who could have done anything they wanted in their careers but they decided to serve children, and they didn’t sign up to be attacked.”
Brown says the stress has some educators reconsidering whether they can stay in their jobs, and that’s ultimately bad for students.
“I think people underestimate how challenging this has been for children in our state, and if we don’t get this right, we’re going to pay a heavy price,” he says. “We’re talking about an entire generation of children who have been through something unprecedented in our lifetimes. The best thing is for them to be in a classroom with a caring teacher who is going to provide academic support, socioemotional support—and help them.”