By Gaige Davila
Face masks are now required for all people inside Point Isabel ISD (PI-ISD) buildings, after a unanimous decision by the school board.
The school district now has local control over COVID-19 protocols, in defiance of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s May executive order banning all mask mandates by government entities, including school boards. Days after the school board decision, PI-ISD filed an application for a temporary restraining order, a temporary injunction and a declaratory judgement against Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
“The provisions of Governor Abbott’s Executive Order GA-38 are prohibiting our school board and administration from taking the steps we feel are necessary to keep our children, staff members and community safe,” a press release from PI-ISD announcing the lawsuit said.
“Through this lawsuit, PIISD is respectfully requesting that the Courts reinstate the laws and authority that Executive Order GA-38 prohibits and restore the authority to keep schools safe to the people of Texas and their locally elected officials.”
PI-ISD now joins several Rio Grande Valley and state school districts who have mandated face masks before the upcoming school year and filed suit against the state. La Joya ISD, Edinburg CISD, Hidalgo ISD, Brownsville ISD and Edcouch-Elsa ISD filed a lawsuit against Abbott this past week for control of health protocols in their district.
Texas counties are joining this front, too.
PI-ISD’s school board met hours after Cameron County mandated masks be worn inside public school buildings and school buses on August 16. Cameron County Health Authority James Castillo issued the order during a press conference highlighting the county’s vaccine incentive program, giving $50 to every school-age student over 12.
According to the county order, students whose parents have abdicated their children from wearing masks can be grouped together away from students who are wearing masks. Parents will be notified if a student contracts COVID-19 and contact tracing will be followed. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) no longer requires contact tracing in schools, the agency said this month.
Castillo told PI-ISD school board members and attendees the order gives school districts a guide on how to make their own mandates< hoping to protect students from a virus that is affecting more children than its previous variants.
“The delta variant of COVID-19 is changing the rules on how this is going to affect children and how this is affecting our community,” Castillo said over Zoom to the attendees. “The hospitals are definitely at a highly stressed point.”
Castillo said COVID hospitalizations are approaching the high of last winter, with a few weeks left before the start of fall.
Castillo said face-to-face learning can be done in a safe way, so long as COVID mandates are in place, explaining his reasoning for issuing the order.
Frank Acevedo, Chief Nursing Officer of Valley Regional Medical Center in Brownsville, who also attended the board meeting over Zoom, said 90% of the patients they’re getting are unvaccinated and are handling a surge of hospitalizations with less staff than last year.
Michelle Jones, an epidemiologist with the City of Brownsville, who accompanied Acevedo over Zoom, said there has been a 90% increase in children testing positive for COVID-19 compared to last week. Jones said it was paramount to protect younger students from COVID, since those under 12-years-old cannot receive a COVID vaccine.
“Until that vaccine is available to them, we have to do those extra measures,” Jones said.
PI-ISD Superintendent Theresa Capistran said recent Center for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which suggest both unvaccinated and vaccinated people wear masks indoors, along with growing COVID-19 cases in the county were why the board sought the mask mandate.
Capistran said she knew parents and staff within the district did not want a mask mandate, but it did not outweigh the amount of those who did or the district’s desire for the mandate.
“I’d rather meet with a parent because they’re upset about a mask mandate than meet with them because of a tragedy that occurred because someone did not wear a mask,” Capistran said. “I am morally obligated to do what needs to be done.”
On PI-ISD’s Facebook livestream, comments ranged from support of the mask mandate to threatening the school district with prosecution. Violations of Abbott’s mask mandate carry a fine up to $1,000.
Capistran said the school board would revisit the mask mandate once “the country gets the delta variant under control.”
The district also approved advocating for full funding of virtual instruction if needed.
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