A small school district made national news defying Texas' ban on mask mandates. Its leaders don't regret it.
- Some Texas
school districts, like Paris ISD, recently defied Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates.
- The move comes as students return to in-person classes and the
COVID-19Delta variant moves across the US.
- Paris ISD has masks in its dress code, and hasn't yet had any troubles enforcing the rule.
In August, Paris ISD, an eight-school district in the 24,000-person town of Paris, Texas, made national news for instituting a dress code policy that contradicted Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates in schools.
It's been widely regarded as an act of rebellion and referred to as a loophole. But Paris ISD spokesperson and attorney Dennis Eichelbaum, a
"I'm not sure why this was seen as: one, a loophole and two, as unusual as people have made it sound," Eichelbaum said. "It just seemed like obvious advice in this case."
In fact, it's not even a new policy.
"We've been implementing this through the dress code for over a year," he said. "It wasn't an issue previously because the governor wasn't trying to prohibit masks. So, when we added masks to the dress code and told kids they had to have masks, a lot of schools did it through their dress code because it's simply a piece of clothing."
During the spring semester, masks were removed from many schools' dress codes because many people believed COVID-19 cases were on the decline. But with the recent increase in cases and hospitalizations, the masks were included in the dress code once again before students returned from summer break.
"It wasn't a loophole, but it absolutely was knowingly going to contradict the governor's executive order," Eichelbaum said. "They knew when they took this action that it was inconsistent with the order."
However, Paris ISD - one of more than 1,000 school districts in
"I have other clients who have chosen to ignore the mask prohibition or have chosen to include it in their dress code, but a lot of districts are just trying to quietly do whatever they do and not necessarily make the press and the attorney general's violators list," Eichelbaum said.
"When COVID hit, I began meeting with different regions around the state and talking with them about the different COVID issues that arose," he continued. "So, one of the things I've been talking to them about for the last year has been the masks and telling them one option they have is to simply put it in their dress code, so they've heard me say this over and over. It wasn't a surprise to any of the districts - whether I exclusively represent them or I'm just one of the attorneys they listen to. They've all heard it before."
Going against the governor's mandate presents risks - not only to the schools, but to individual
"The governor and attorney general have called school districts' names," Eichelbaum said. "And they have the authority to go after individual trustees for violating the law, as well as the superintendent, who has a certificate that could be deemed in jeopardy if he was found to be in violation of the law."
Most recently, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the Bexar County
Gov. Abbott could suspend the Education Code's provision and take authority away from locally elected officials, but that would mark a distinct change in strategy for a Republican governor in a state that largely favors local control.
"We feel safe in this case because he hasn't suspended the Education Code," he said. "But that doesn't mean he couldn't."
Despite the controversy, Paris ISD administrators haven't had any refusals to comply with the mask policy in the first few weeks of the school year, which Eichelbaum remarks is unusual for any dress code issue.
Though that's not to say there aren't differences of option.
"For whatever reason, masks have become political," he said. "There are absolutely parents who come and speak against it and parents who speak for it. We don't know whether or not some people chose not to send their kids to school this year, we just know that those who have been at school have been complying. The faculty has been very supportive and we're doing the best we can under bad circumstances."
If the policy is allowed to continue under Texas law, it is set to be reviewed monthly by the district.
"There's not a single trustee who likes the idea of anyone having to wear a mask, including themselves," Eichelbaum said. "This could be something that is removed or stopped in a month, but at the same time they've left it in the dress code as an option."
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