DALLAS – Dallas city school leaders defied their governor Monday, announcing that students and staff will be required to wear masks in school buildings as coronavirus cases spike across the region and state.
The announcement from the Dallas Independent School District, delivered hours after some schools began for the year, came despite a statewide ban in Texas on such mandates. Last month, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring government entities – including public schools – from mandating masks or vaccines. As virus caseloads have skyrocketed, the governor has declined to modify the policy.
“With numbers getting significantly worse this decision is urgent, and an important one when it comes to protecting our students, teachers, staff and their families,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said.
The mandate takes effect on Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all people in schools wear masks, and most of the country appears to be going along with those recommendations. But that guidance has been supplanted in about a half-dozen states, including Texas and Florida.
Dallas is the first Texas school district to defy the governor’s order. Last week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner did the same, saying city employees would be required to wear masks in situations where they are unable to socially distance themselves from others.
Hinojosa said his decision came after he saw numbers of covid-19 cases rising quickly in the face of the highly contagious delta variant. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Students perform better in the classroom, he said, and the mask mandate will allow schools to operate safely in person.
“We couldn’t delay,” he said. “We had to make a decision to best protect our students and teachers.”
Masks work, said Ben Mackey, president of the Dallas ISD school board, who supports Hinojosa’s new stance. He pointed to very low transmissions rates on campuses toward the end of last school year, thanks in part to masks being worn consistently by educators and students.
“It is imperative that Dallas ISD act swiftly to put the health and safety of our students first,” Mackey said in a statement.
The district also won support from the local teachers union.
“We want to thank Superintendent Hinojosa for taking bold action and listening to medical advisers and science about what is happening,” said Rena Honea, president of the Alliance/AFT, a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers representing about 5,000 teachers and staff at Dallas ISD. “We feel like it’s the safest way to slow down the spread.”
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Dallas school district’s decision.
Last week, President Joe Biden criticized Abbott and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for their moves to bar mask mandates at the local level.
“Some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, and they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it,” Biden said.
Earlier, the Dallas schools had said that masks were optional, while making face coverings and other personal protective equipment available at every campus.
The Texas Education Agency recently stated that schools do not have to inform parents of a positive case of covid. Schools also do not have to conduct contact tracing. And if a school does contact tracing, parents can still choose to send a child to school if they are a close contact of an infected student.