Dallas ISD will continue to require masks for all students and staff members, despite a decision Sunday by the Texas Supreme Court that temporarily halted Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ public health order requiring masks in public schools and businesses.
“Until there’s an official order of the court that applies to the Dallas Independent School District, we will continue to have the mask mandate,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said late Sunday.
But he said he knows the fight isn’t over: “After a court rules, then I will comply, if it’s not in my favor.”
Meanwhile, thousands of other Dallas-area students will return to school this week as confusion runs rampant over whether masks can be required on campus.
Some districts, including Garland and Irving ISDs, have announced masks will be optional while several others have yet to say how the ruling will affect them.
Hinojosa said he had been fielding text messages from superintendents across the state about the decision.
Under Jenkins’ order, 13 of the county’s 14 public school districts announced last week they would enforce mask mandates as students returned to school and the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spread throughout North Texas.
The majority of Dallas ISD’s 225 campuses start school Monday.
“We have 150,000 students. We have 22,000 employees,” Hinojosa said. “You can imagine the number of parents and other people who depend on us as we make decisions.”
On Aug. 9, before Jenkins had issued his mandate, Hinojosa issued his own mask requirement, saying that it was his responsibility to ensure the health of his employees and the district’s students. Children younger than 12 — essentially all students in pre-K through sixth grade — are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.
“As the superintendent of the second-largest district in Texas, I’m responsible for everything — most important, the safety of our students,” he said during a news conference last week.
The Dallas superintendent said the district’s attorneys found the governor’s executive order to be “very loose.”
“I’m a former government teacher. The way it’s supposed to work is the legislative branch makes the law,” he said. “The executive branch is supposed to enforce the laws. Did the executive branch enforce the law or are they making the law?”
Rena Honea, the president of teacher union Alliance-AFT Dallas, said her organization would support Hinojosa if he decided to defy Abbott’s executive order once again.
“Certainly we’re disappointed in the ruling, but not surprised,” Honea said. “Obviously, this decision is being made with the health and safety of students and employees in Dallas ISD not considered. We’ll support him if he will stay strong and do what’s right for these families.”
Twelve of Dallas County’s school districts followed DISD’s lead with their own mask mandates under Jenkins’ order. Sunnyvale ISD was the lone holdout in the county, with school officials not yet announcing whether they would enforce their own mandate.
“Some of these other districts only did it because it was an order of Clay Jenkins,” Hinojosa said. “We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do from the beginning.”
In Richardson ISD, where classes start Tuesday, district officials are reviewing the latest Supreme Court ruling and plan to update parents Monday, spokesman Tim Clark said via text message. Grand Prairie officials also plan to release an update Monday.
Garland, Mesquite, Irving, Duncanville, Lancaster and Cedar Hill ISDs announced that masks would be optional in light of the Supreme Court’s temporary stay.
“While we are disappointed with today’s judicial outcome, it does not change our commitment to the health and safety of our scholars,” Cedar Hill Superintendent Gerald B. Hudson wrote in a letter to families. “The only factor that changes is our approach. We cannot legally mandate face masks within the schools, but we will strongly encourage and recommend it.”
The governor’s ban on mask mandates has drawn the ire of U.S. Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona, who wrote to Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Friday over the prohibition.
Cardona suggested that the ban “may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators.”
The governor’s action also cuts against the federal law that directed billions of dollars in pandemic aid to school districts to help students recover from the pandemic and schools to reopen safely, Cardona suggested.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking for all students and staff members inside schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“The Department is concerned that Texas’ actions could limit each [school system]’s ability … to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction,” Cardona wrote.
Dallas ISD may end up reversing its decision to require masks if a court order specifically names his district, Hinojosa said Sunday evening.
“If this court order then applies [to DISD], then we will comply,” Hinojosa said.
Another consequence may exist for DISD. The governor’s order stipulates that governmental bodies violating the mask mandate ban are subject to a $1,000 fine. It’s not clear whether that amount is per day, per event or per student, Hinojosa said.
Whiplash on masking
Daniel Patyrak, a Richardson ISD parent with two daughters in the district, said that he would be taking his kids back regardless of a mask mandate, after spending last year in virtual learning and homeschool.
“Frankly, it does not matter if there is or isn’t a mandate (I wish there was but it does not matter),” Patyrak wrote. “What irks me more than anything is this being [played] out in public between officials. … This constant back and forth is what is most difficult. If you are not keeping up with the news, you may be a day behind.”
Richardson ISD’s deadline to switch younger children into a temporary virtual learning option was Friday.
Peter and Heather Stewart sent a message to Garland ISD — where they have two children enrolled — informing the district that the family would remove their youngest child from school if the mask mandate were rescinded. While their older child is vaccinated, the youngest is under 12. She would be re-enrolled once vaccinated, her parents said.
All the arguments they’d heard in recent weeks from both sides were “all noise,” they wrote in their email to the district.
“This is what cuts through the noise: COVID is spreading at a higher rate now and accelerating; CDC guidelines say to mask up while indoors; GISD is at full capacity and cannot social distance, masks and sanitization are all that remains for protecting the unvaccinated.
“Simply stated, we will be keeping our child in a learning environment that can meet CDC guidelines.”
Bobby Abtahi, the former president of the Dallas Park Board, said he was “very annoyed” with the ruling.
His daughter will begin pre-kindergarten Monday at Solar Prep for Girls, and with the decision “she becomes a political football.”
“I’m hopeful the kids and their teachers have more common sense than the governor, so they will take the necessary steps to protect everyone,” Abtahi wrote. “But I won’t be sleeping easy tonight.”
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.