Texas Supreme Court backs Abbott executive order, but school districts keep mask mandates in place

In statewide legal battle over COVID protocols, attorney general seeks broader rejection of lower court resistance


David Winter

Junior Sophia Kramer and senior Bobby Currie help English teacher Diana Adamson give a tour of the English hall at the freshman orientation. Everyone was masked in compliance with the Austin ISD mask mandate in place.

Samantha Powers, co-editor-in-chief

A Sunday Texas Supreme Court decision overturned lower-court decisions that had allowed Dallas and Bexar counties to ignore Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order against local mask mandates. 

The court suspended the counties’ temporary restraining orders against Abbott’s executive order, which had allowed the school districts to operate with a mask mandate prior to other trial hearings. Hearings in San Antonio are taking place today, with a hearing in Dallas set for Aug. 24, over whether to issue temporary injunctions against Abbott that would allow for school mask mandates. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton expressed his support for the court’s defense of Abbott’s authority on Sunday.

“Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and local officials that the governor’s order stands,” Paxton said on Twitter. “Local mask mandates are illegal.”

Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and local officials that the governor’s order stands.

— Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

Austin ISD’s plan to start school with a mask mandate is in line with a decision from District Court Judge Jan Soifer which granted temporary restraining orders against Abbott’s order to multiple Texas school districts, including in Travis County.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown told KUT that Travis County will proceed as planned with the mask mandate while not in direct legal conflict with Abbott.

“Until we end up in direct litigation with the Governor, we’re going to keep our requirement that public schools require masks in place,” Brown told KUT.

However, the scope of Abbott’s temporary relief may soon expand. Solicitor General Judd Stone sent a letter at 3 p.m. today from Paxton’s office requesting that the Texas Supreme Court extend Abbott’s relief from restraining orders to decisions from the 5th Court of the Appeals and the 345th District Court, which would include the restraining order filed by Travis County.

Despite the recent decision, schools in Dallas started Monday with mask mandates still in effect. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins expressed his intentions to uphold the mask mandate on Twitter.

“We won’t stop working with parents, doctors, schools, business and others to protect you and intend to win that hearing,” Judge Jenkins said.

Austin ISD schools will start Tuesday with mask mandates in place, said the district in an email to the community. 

Janitors Daniel Sena and Maria Nunez prepare to distribute air purifiers to every McCallum classroom on Sunday afternoon. (David Winter)

Austin City Council member Greg Casar chimed in with a press release confirming that masking procedure will remain the same in Austin despite the decision.

“Tomorrow, kids must wear masks in Austin and Travis County public schools — helping keep them safe,” Casar said in the release. “No matter what the courts ultimately say, we should mask up because it’s the right thing to do. This is about keeping our kids in school and out of the hospital.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler also expressed his continuing support for the local mask mandate as legal proceedings advance throughout Texas.

“While we await a final decision, we believe local rules are the rules,” Adler said on Twitter. “Regardless of what eventually happens in the courts, if you’re a parent, please keep fighting to have everyone in schools masked. We stand with you.”

Regardless of what eventually happens in the courts, if you’re a parent, please keep fighting to have everyone in schools masked. We stand with you.

— Austin Mayor Steve Adler

Some neighboring districts, including Pflugerville ISD, are beginning the school year with a mask mandate, while other districts are taking their cue from Abbott, including Round Rock ISD, Georgetown ISD, and Hays ISD.

Various Texas advocacy groups sent letters to the Texas Supreme Court over the weekend prior to the decision, urging the conservative court to defend Dallas and Bexar counties in their pursuit of protected mask mandates. These organizations included Disability Rights Texas and Parents of Medically Fragile Children. 

In the letter from the attorneys representing Disability Rights Texas to the Texas Supreme Court in the Dallas county case, the attorneys cited information from a variety of sources—including the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics—in their argument for the mask mandate.

“The executive order here is not mere inattention to a fire,” the letter reads. “It is an attempt to prevent any fire brigade from fighting the fire as it deems best while the citizens risk being consumed by the flames.”