How three school districts are defying state restrictions on mask mandates

But some school districts have taken more methodical approaches, carefully bypassing state restrictions on mask requirements through cautious legal maneuvering or apparent loopholes.

Here’s how three school districts are defying state restrictions on mask mandates.

Texas school district changed dress code

The Paris Independent School District School Board in Paris, Texas made headlines this week when it voted to include masks in its dress code, bypassing a governor’s order that said no government entity , including school districts, could not require masks.

In a statement, the board of directors of ISD in Paris said it made the decision because it was “concerned about the health and safety of its students and employees.”

“The council believes the dress code can be used to alleviate communicable health concerns, and has therefore changed the PISD dress code to protect our students and employees,” the statement said. “The governor of Texas does not have the power to usurp the exclusive power and duty of the board of trustees to govern and oversee the management of public schools in the district.”

In the end, the Paris ISD strategy could prove to be unnecessary, as the state’s Supreme Court on Thursday rejected Abbott’s efforts to end mask warrants issued in local jurisdictions, allowing such warrants for the moment. The governor’s order has been challenged by many jurisdictions, and schools in Dallas, Houston, Austin El Paso and Richardson have outright defied the order and demanded masks.

Additionally, after Thursday’s ruling, the Texas Education Agency released guidelines saying it will not enforce restrictions on mask warrants while the executive order litigation is ongoing.

Dennis Eichelbaum, general counsel of Paris ISD, has been advising school boards for more than a year to add masks to their dress code, he told CNN. So when Paris ISD asked him if they could impose masks, he told them they had “one hundred percent authority over their dress code.”

“That’s where it actually belongs,” he said. “The obligation to wear masks is really no different from the obligation to wear shoes or other protective equipment that we need.”

The measure is not a “loophole,” Eichelbaum said, because the executive order did not suspend the Texas Education Code, which gives the school board the power to govern schools in the district.

“It just falls under that,” Eichelbaum said, “and because the governor never suspended this, we are allowed to do anything within these parameters, which are quite broad.”

The Paris ISD has yet to see any challenge to its dress code, Eichelbaum says, but the district is included in a list of government entities “illegally imposing mask warrants” on the Texas attorney general’s website.

Eichelbaum wouldn’t be surprised if a challenge arose in the future, depending on how the other cases go, he says. For now, if Texas school districts want to implement mask mandates, he thinks the best choice is to include masks in their dress codes.

Oklahoma City Public Schools Bypass School Board

Earlier this year, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed into law SB 658, which largely prevented school boards from requiring masks or vaccinations except in specific circumstances.

But that hasn’t stopped several districts from demanding masks, including Oklahoma City public schools.

Superintendent Sean McDaniel announced a mask requirement this month in a letter to families. He says that the law supposed to prohibit such a mandate only prevented a school board from making this decision. But “the law does not prohibit the superintendent and the district administration from requiring the wearing of masks by our students, staff and visitors,” he said.

Parents are allowed to request a waiver for medical, religious or personal reasons, the letter said. But according to OKCPS, Wednesday, only 94 students out of about 30,000 – less than 1% – had withdrawn. Families have until September 10 to apply for the exemption.

Oklahoma City Public School Superintendent Dr. Sean McDaniel punches students as they arrive at Rockwood Elementary School for Oklahoma City Public Schools on Monday, August 9, 2021, in Oklahoma City , Oklahoma.

Crystal Raymond, spokesperson for the district, told CNN that the district announced the mask requirement after the number of reported cases in the district among students and staff rose from three digits over the course of of the first three days of school.

“This told us that the mitigation strategies in place weren’t enough,” Raymond said in an email.

The response from parents and staff “has been overwhelmingly positive and the majority of our students and staff have complied,” she said.

OKCPS isn’t alone: ​​Santa Fe South Schools, a public charter school district in the area, said earlier this month that they would require masks, but also included a opt-out provision.

The governor’s office said it had no issues with the OKCPS and Santa Fe South requirements as they provide the option to opt out. Spokeswoman Carly Atchison told CNN in a statement, “As long as the kids have the opportunity to spend five days a week in person and as long as the parents have a choice, the governor has no problem.”

“School districts can use magic words as much as they want,” Atchison added, “but as soon as they take choices away from parents, that’s when they break the law.”

Teachers in states banning mask warrants speak out.  Here's what they want you to know
A third district in Oklahoma, the Hulbert Public Schools, announced Thursday in a letter that it would institute a mask warrant, citing cases of escalation in schools and the wider community. Since school started on August 12, seven people have tested positive, forcing more than 154 people to be quarantined, the letter said. As a result, all middle and high school students had to switch to distance education.

But the district’s letter to families says those who wished to opt out could switch to the district’s virtual learning option, angering the state’s governor and attorney general.

Governor Stitt and Attorney General John O’Connor on Thursday criticized Hulbert Public Schools in a joint statement, saying they had “chosen to openly violate a state law.”

In his statement to CNN, Atchison noted that SB 658 “was passed with the support of 80% of the legislature and the governor will enforce the law in the state of Oklahoma.”

Neither Santa Fe South Public Schools nor Hulbert responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

Court rules Arizona district can impose masks – for now

The Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona has at least purchased its mask requirement for some time.

The public high school district will be able to enforce its mask mandate – announced July 30 despite state law – until at least September 29, according to a decision by a Maricopa County judge this week as part of ” a lawsuit brought against the district by a teacher.
The lawsuit argues that the district cannot implement a mask warrant under HB 2898, which was enacted in late June and included language prohibiting local courts from imposing mask requirements.

But a Maricopa County judge ruled this week that the law has yet to come into force, despite a retroactivity clause saying the law will come into effect on June 30. the session ends on September 29.

Students wait for the Valley Metro bus to pick them up after their first day at Central High School in Phoenix on August 2, 2021.

What happens after that date is an open question, District Attorney Mary O’Grady told CNN, noting that there was a separate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the legislation.

The judge also did not dismiss the lawsuit against Phoenix Union High School, giving the complainant an opportunity to modify the complaint.

CNN affiliate KVOA reported that the Tucson Unified School District also announced a mask warrant after the Phoenix District and several other school districts followed suit after the court ruling this week.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Union High School District has “received overwhelming support from our students and families,” district spokesperson Richard Franco told CNN.

Teacher sues Arizona school district for implementing mask warrant despite governor's ban

“Parents and students have told us that they understand why we are demanding masks, and they are very grateful,” he said. “No one likes to wear a mask, but our community postal codes remain among the hardest hit by COVID-19, and our community understands that we must do all we can to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

When asked if the district would continue to enforce the mandate after September 29, Franco acknowledged that a lot “can and will change by the end of September with the virus, the guidelines and even potentially the law.”

“We don’t know what the future holds,” he said, “but we will remain committed to protecting the health and safety of our staff, students, families and the community within the meaning large”.

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