As the new school year begins for Texas students and mask mandates are debated in various state courts, at least four school districts have already closed campuses due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
The shutdowns are taking place as more school districts and communities continued this week to defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates and require students and residents to wear face coverings. Tuesday afternoon, Abbott’s office announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. Abbott, who is vaccinated, was experiencing no symptoms.
The school district in Gorman, located about 70 miles (112.65 kilometers) east of Abilene, had been set to begin the new school year on Wednesday but is now delaying that by a week "due to positive COVID cases within the school community of both faculty and students," Superintendent Mike Winter said in a statement.
"This decision was not made lightly or quickly, and it was made with the best interest of all students, staff, and parents’ safety in mind," Winter said.
In East Texas, the Bloomburg school district announced it was shut down this week "due to the number of staff members out with COVID." Classes had started on Aug. 9.
About 60 miles (96.56 kilometers) south of Bloomburg, the Waskom school district’s elementary campus was closed due to the "number of staff members out with COVID," said Superintendent Rae Ann Patty. Classes in Waskom had started Aug. 11.
These school districts join the Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District in West Texas, which on Monday announced it would close schools for two weeks so students and staff could quarantine due to COVID-19. Classes had started on Aug. 10.
Mask wearing was optional in these four school districts. At least 21 other Texas school districts, including some of the state’s biggest, have instituted mask mandates, which are in violation of Abbott’s executive order banning such measures.
The debate over mandatory mask wearing in Texas school districts continued being litigated in various courts around the state. The issue was expected to ultimately be decided by the Texas Supreme Court, which has already halted mask mandates in two of the state’s largest counties. One of these two counties, Dallas, has brushed aside the high court’s order while another, Bexar, on Monday won a temporary injunction against Abbott’s order.
The push by some school districts and counties for mask mandates comes as hospitals across the state continue to be flooded with COVID-19 patients.
In the 25-county region around Houston, 629 COVID patients are waiting for beds but can’t get admitted to a hospital, Dr. David Persse, who is health authority for the Houston Health Department and EMS medical director, said Tuesday. An additional 112 patients are waiting for ICU beds, he said.
On Tuesday, state health officials reported 12,227 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas, the first time the state had surpassed 12,000 since Jan. 27. Since June 27, when hospitalizations had been at their lowest point in more than a year, they have jumped by 756%. State health officials reported 24,422 new and probable cases on Tuesday.
In the Eanes school district in Austin, which is requiring masks, a parent "physically assaulted" one teacher by ripping a mask off her face while another teacher was yelled at by other parents because they couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying while she wore a mask, Superintendent Tom Leonard said in a statement. The first day of classes in the Eanes district was not until Wednesday.
"This type of behavior will not be tolerated in Eanes ISD. Our staff are on the front lines of this pandemic; let’s give them some space and grace. Please, I am asking everyone to be kind...do not fight mask wars in our schools," Leonard said.
On Monday, the Round Rock and West Oso school districts became the latest to defy Abbott and require students and staff to wear masks.
The San Antonio school district, which also has a mask mandate, on Monday announced it was requiring all staff to become vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 15.
In West Texas, El Paso County officials announced that starting Wednesday they would require masks be worn inside all indoor facilities, including schools.