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Some Waco-area schools question state suit over mask policies

Some Waco-area schools question state suit over mask policies

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Since Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued four Waco-area school districts Monday over mask mandates, one district has said it never had a mandate, one has said it has never enforced its mandate, and two have pointed to declines in new cases since their mandates took effect.

The suit, filed in Waco’s 414th State District Court, alleges Waco, Midway, La Vega and McGregor ISDs are deliberately violating state law in the form of an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott banning mask mandates by public schools and other state entities.

McGregor ISD has seen cases decline since starting to require masks, to the point that it is now recommending masks, not mandating them. The district started the year with no mandate, but about two weeks ago rolled out a three-stage plan to require masks on any campus where 2% or more of the population has tested positive over the course of seven days. At 5%, a campus would close.

“The district has seen a positive impact from its mitigation plan,” Superintendent James Lenamon said in a statement Tuesday. “With a positive rate dropping from 3.39% district-wide to 0.6% after entering Stage 2 on September 3, thus averting Stage 3, which involves campus closures.”

Though the district presents masking as a requirement at 2% or higher, Lenamon said it does not enforce the mandate, following a previous attorney general request.

“It is worth noting that the AG had previously requested that the district rescind the portion of its plan that required face coverings in Stage 2, or, alternatively, that the district not enforce the requirement pending the Texas Supreme Court’s disposition of other mask cases,” Lenamon said.

According to the statement, McGregor ISD has seen about 90% compliance but did not enforce the requirement as “demonstrated by the fact that no student, employees, or members of the community have been excluded or punished for non-compliance.”

Lenamon said the district is disappointed the attorney general went ahead with the suit.

Like other school officials, he said McGregor is aware of the lawsuit through the media but has not been formally served.

“We are currently conferring with counsel and the health department about appropriate next steps,” he said.

Midway ISD officials said the district does not have a mask mandate.

“We have not received information of why or how we are considered out of compliance or considered for a lawsuit,” district spokesperson Traci Marlin said. “All information thus far has been obtained only via media or social media.”

In multiple places in its COVID-19 protocols, Midway states it strongly encourages but does not require masks for students or staff, and goes on to reference Abbott’s executive orders prohibiting mask mandates.

In a COVID-19 “situational matrix,” based on case loads, the district lists a “10-day mask directive” for campuses approaching levels that would require closure, a “temporary mask directive” for certain clusters and “required masks in small group instruction & music,” for extracurriculars approaching case loads that would require the programs’ suspension, though the matrix also states those and other responses “are akin to a toolkit of possible tools to use, not a recipe to follow.”

After a directive was announced for River Valley Intermediate, Marlin said it was not a requirement, was not enforced, but was “a request from that campus community to keep the doors open because of a higher number of COVID cases.”

The lawsuit states the districts named are “deliberately violating state law” and are not above the law. It states the governor’s executive order, which has the force of law, was made to “create a uniform response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one that gives individuals the autonomy to make personal health decisions free from government control.”

“We have respected the governor’s orders while implementing thoughtful, measured and temporary responses to clusters of COVID cases,” Marlin said.

Waco ISD will “respond accordingly” when served with the lawsuit, Superintendent Susan Kincannon said in a statement Monday.

Since the district started requiring masks in its second week of fall classes, “the number of students and employees reporting that they have tested positive for COVID-19 has decreased significantly,” according to the statement.

The suit lists calls for Judge Vicki Menard to set an expedited hearing as the state’s application seeks for a temporary restraining order and a temporary injunction to block the district’s from requiring face coverings. Menard was not able to be reached for comment.

While they wait to hear from the attorney general directly, Lenamon said that McGregor ISD’s mitigation plan has shown to work.

“In any event, the district has seen a positive impact from its mitigation plan,” Lenamon said. “With a positive rate dropping from 3.39% district-wide to 0.6% after entering Stage 2 on September 3, thus averting Stage 3, which involves campus closures.”

Attempts to reach La Vega ISD officials for comment were unsuccessful.

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Hailing from the Chicagoland area, Amaris E. Rodriguez is a 2019 graduate of Northeastern Illinois University and formerly worked the Journal & Topics news organization in Des Plains, Illinois.

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