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Texas schools defy governor’s mask order as Covid cases jump

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Democrats in the biggest cities in Texas are in open rebellion against Republican governor Greg Abbott over efforts to ban mask mandates in schools as students prepare to head back to classrooms.

Texas is among a handful of Republican-led states, including Florida and others in the US south, that have become hotspots for both infections from the easily spread Delta variant and political fights over mask and vaccine requirements in schools and businesses.

The Houston Independent School District, one of the biggest public school systems in the US, on Thursday became the latest in Texas to require face coverings for students for the school year that begins on August 23 in defiance of a May executive order from Abbott barring such mandates.

The school district voted unanimously in support of the mask mandate proposal at a lively school board meeting on Thursday night, which included testimony from several young students.

“I’ve received an unprecedented number of emails, more than I have for any other issue,” said Sue Deigaard, one of the Houston school board trustees. “The overwhelming majority were from parents who support requiring masks, pleading with us to keep their precious children safe from an evolving health crisis.”

Houston took action after similar moves earlier this week from school districts including Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, ratcheting up bitter partisan divisions over the Covid-19 response between cities largely run by Democrats and the state’s conservative leadership.

The Texas governor on Wednesday threatened to take the school districts to court, arguing they were violating his executive order.

“Abbott has been clear that the time for mask mandates is over; now is the time for personal responsibility. Parents and guardians have the right to decide whether their child will wear a mask or not,” said Renae Eze, the governor’s press secretary.

Texas attorney-general Ken Paxton, a high-profile conservative whose re-election campaign has former president Donald Trump’s backing, said the state would defeat “attention-grabbing judges and mayors”, referring to municipal and county leaders. The state will “fight mask mandates and win”, Paxton said.

Lina Hidalgo, a Harris County judge and one of the Houston area’s top Democratic elected officials, was among the local leaders who sued over the past week to challenge Abbott’s executive order on masks. She called it a “moment of necessary civil disobedience”, adding that the spectre of the state suing school districts would be “cynical and tragic”.

The fight has grabbed the attention of the White House, with US president Joe Biden saying this week he was “checking” to see if there are options for the federal government to intervene in the disputes.

The revolt from Democratic local officials over mask mandates has added to an already fraught political climate in Texas, where Abbott is also fending off a revolt from Democrats over controversial new voting legislation.

Many of the state’s Democratic lawmakers had fled to Washington to try to delay passage of the voting bill supported by the Republican majority in the state legislature. The governor warned the rebellious lawmakers could be arrested when they return to Austin, the Texas capital.

The fight over masks in schools comes as the Delta variant has led case and hospitalisation numbers to rise across Texas to their highest levels since February, stretching hospitals’ capacity.

The Texas Medical Center in Houston, one of the largest hospitals in the US, has reported that coronavirus-related hospitalisations quadrupled over the past month to more than 350 new admissions a day, close to the facility’s all-time high.

As new cases strain hospitals, Abbott said he would deploy 2,500 health workers, many recruited from out of state, to Texas medical facilities.

The opposition to mask mandates from governors such as Abbott and Florida’s Ron DeSantis taps into widespread resistance to new pandemic restrictions among their conservative political bases.

The White House has piled pressure on those governors to reverse course, highlighting the jump in cases in the nation’s two largest Republican-run states.

“In the past week, Florida has had more Covid cases than all 30 states with the lowest case rates combined,” Jeff Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response co-ordinator, said on Thursday. “Florida and Texas alone have accounted for nearly 40 per cent of new hospitalisations across the country.”

Both states’ residents have taken up vaccines more slowly than large Democratic-led states, with 56 per cent of Texas’s adults fully vaccinated and 60 per cent of Floridians.

DeSantis, facing his own revolt from local officials, has threatened to withhold funding from school districts that implement mask mandates.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “universal indoor masking” at schools, regardless of whether a person has been vaccinated.

“The best way to keep our schools safe — and we know how to do it — is to vaccinate everyone who can be vaccinated,” Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, said at a White House briefing on Thursday. “And then to follow the mitigation strategies in our school guidance, including masking in schools.”

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