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West Texas Schools Waver on Mask Rules as Legal Fights Continue

School districts from the Big Bend region to the Permian Basin have either retreated from mask mandates or held off from implementing them as broader court fights play out over whether schools even have that power in Texas.

By Travis Bubenik

As legal uncertainty continues to swirl over whether schools in Texas can require face masks, school districts in West Texas are mostly choosing to err on the side of caution for now.

On Thursday, multiple districts across the region either rolled back local mask requirements or stopped short of implementing them after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a ban on mask rules by the state’s Republican governor can remain in effect for now.

While Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly insisted that the court’s temporary order in a San Antonio-area case applied to districts across the state, officials in El Paso argued the opposite, saying they would continue to require masks in schools there because their own separate court fight over the matter had yet to be decided. Even some San Antonio schools said they would stick with mask requirements for now.

As the legal wrangling continues to play out, here’s a breakdown of how some West Texas school districts are approaching mask rules for the time being.

Presidio ISD

After first moving to require masks on Monday, Presidio’s school district abandoned that policy on Thursday, citing the Texas Supreme Court ruling.

“We made every attempt to keep our staff, students and visitors safe with the recent mask mandate however, this is now a legal compliance matter,” the district’s police department wrote on Facebook, saying officials still “strongly encourage” mask wearing.

Fort Stockton ISD

Similarly, Fort Stockton officials on Thursday quickly backtracked from a mask requirement that was instituted the same day, just before the Texas high court’s ruling. “Our school attorneys advised that litigation will likely continue beyond the state level,” the district’s superintendent Gabriel Zamora wrote in a letter shared by the Fort Stockton Pioneer newspaper.

“I formerly wish to thank all of the community members, medical personnel, city, and county officials who joined us in a display of solidarity against the pandemic,” Zamora wrote.

Zamora said the Fort Stockton school board would hold a meeting on Aug. 30 to discuss “incentives” for students and staff who “pledge to wear masks while in school.”

Marfa ISD

Marfa’s school board on Thursday decided to not implement a local mask mandate for now, but board members did agree to let the district’s superintendent start requiring masks if a spike in COVID-19 cases causes Marfa schools to shut down.

“What they’ve authorized me to do is that, if we get to a point where I close down school because cases are rising, upon return, I have the right to mandate masks at that time,” Marfa ISD Superintendent Oscar Aguero said in an interview after the vote.

Aguero said the board decided on that move because the district had no confirmed COVID cases as of Thursday.

Ector County ISD

The Odessa-area school board also stopped short of implementing mask rules on Thursday. 

Instead, board members approved a resolution giving the district’s superintendent the ability to impose a mask mandate, but only if it is deemed “legally and medically appropriate.”

Ector County ISD’s legal counsel had urged the district to wait until mask mandates were clearly legal before imposing one.

Midland ISD

Midland schools are not currently requiring masks, but the district is still encouraging masks “for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors...regardless of vaccination status.”

Alpine ISD

Alpine schools are not requiring masks.

“We are highly recommending masking while indoors, however we will respect each individual's personal choice,” said Alpine ISD Superintendent Rebecca McCutchen.

Fort Davis ISD

Fort Davis schools are not requiring masks, and superintendent Graydon Hicks said the district is not currently considering any kind of mandates.

“We have no masks, we’re not doing any mandatory masks or distancing or anything, we’re completely normal,” he said. “We’re neither encouraging it nor mandating it.”

Mitch Borden contributed to this story.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.