A district judge in McLennan County on Monday dismissed Midway and McGregor independent school districts from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit over school masking policies but did not rule on the state’s request to block mask mandates at Waco ISD and La Vega ISD.
Wearing a mask while sitting on the bench in an empty courtroom, 414th State District Judge Vicki Menard heard arguments via Zoom from the Office of the Attorney General for a temporary restraining order against Waco and La Vega until hearings can be held on the merits of granting an injunction against them.
An assistant attorney general told the judge that the districts showed blatant disregard for Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning school mask mandates.
Midway and McGregor ISDs also were sued, but the attorney general’s office agreed to dismiss them from the lawsuit.
Midway officials argued that while they strongly encouraged students and staff members to wear masks, there was no true mandate in place. McGregor schools did require mask-wearing but at Paxton’s request did not enforce the mandate, Superintendent James Lenamon has said.
The defendants have sought to delay the proceedings until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the school mask mandate in similar lawsuits statewide, but Menard did not rule on that request Monday. Paxton has sued more than a dozen school districts statewide with mixed results so far.
The Texas Supreme Court has blocked lower court rulings — at least temporarily — that allowed Dallas and San Antonio to issue school mask mandates while the lawsuits continue. However, a state district judge granted temporary restraining orders that override Abbott’s orders as it applies to Travis, Harris and eight other school districts. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately will decide the issue.
Will Wassdorf, an assistant attorney general, argued Monday in a hearing held via teleconference that the issue is not whether people agree that wearing masks helps guard against the spread of COVID-19. He said no one complained when Abbott instituted preventive measures in 2020, regardless of whether they agreed with his strategies in the war against the pandemic.
The issue, Wassdorf said, is whether Abbott’s orders are within his authority under the disaster act, which he said has the effect of law.
Carlos Lopez, who represents Waco and La Vega schools, said he took offense to Paxton’s Twitter posts that he said took a “condescending view” of judges who ruled against his lawsuits seeking to enforce the mask bans.
Lopez questioned whether Abbott’s mask ban complies with the disaster act, saying it does nothing to combat the disease. He added that Abbott’s “hands-off approach” and “let-the-people-decide” philosophy likely are not valid under the Texas Disaster Act.
Dr. Farley Verner, McLennan County public health authority, wrote a letter in support of Waco ISD’s mask mandate and submitted an affidavit for the defendants in the Paxton lawsuit. Lopez described Verner’s assessment of the delta variant’s threat to children as “scary.”
The state’s request for a TRO boils down to “per se dignitary harm” to the state vs. life-and-death decisions being made by school officials, Lopez argued.
Before recessing the Zoom hearing, Menard explained that in wearing a mask during the hearing she was in no way making a comment on the merits of the case. She said the judiciary is governed by different rules than the legislative branch.