Live COVID-19 updates: Judge’s order allows 20 Texas school districts to issue mask mandates

Healthcare workers wheel portable oxygen tanks to patients in the COVID-19 care unit of Titus Regional Medical Center in Mount Pleasant on Aug. 19, 2021.

Not every Texas school district can mandate masks, judge rules — but some can

A court order that temporarily blocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in Texas public schools is set to expire Friday — but a group of school districts made headway in their bid to require masks in their schools.

State District Judge Catherine Mauzy of Travis County denied a request by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit education group, to extend a temporary order blocking Abbott’s ban and allow any school district in Texas to require students, teachers, school employees and visitors to wear masks in public schools.

But in another case, the same judge temporarily blocked Abbott’s executive order banning local mask mandates with a temporary injunction — allowing 20 school districts to require students, teachers, school employees and visitors to wear masks in public schools.

Those districts include several border school districts, like La Joya, Brownsville and Hidalgo ISDs, as well as districts in the state’s larger metropolitan areas that later joined the lawsuit, like Houston, Austin and Dallas.

“Absent this order, the school districts and community college district will be unable to adopt a face covering requirement to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which threatens to overwhelm public schools and could result in more extreme measures such as school closures that have already begun in several Texas school districts,” Mauzy wrote in her ruling.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has already appealed Mauzy’s ruling. In the push-and-pull between state Republican officials and local officials over mask mandates, a lower court will often favor cities, counties and school districts and allow them to initiate their own mask-wearing rules before a higher court overrules them, siding with Abbott and Paxton. — Joshua Fechter

Abbott announces state will pay for 2,500 more temporary medical workers to help Texas hospitals

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that for the second time amid a recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations that Texas will increase the number of state-funded relief workers it will be sending to Texas hospitals, bringing the total to 8,100.

The Texas Department of State Health Services had previously authorized contracting 5,600 medical personnel, and Thursday’s announcement adds 2,500 more.

During the state’s winter COVID-19 surge, more than 13,500 temporary medical workers were deployed across the state, according to DSHS. Those numbers began to dwindle once cases started to decrease and vaccinations became more widely available.

Now, the highly-contagious delta variant has pushed the state to reverse course and again take the lead in alleviating staffing shortages as hospitals are inundated with COVID-19 patients and intensive care unit beds are becoming scarce. On Aug. 9, Abbott directed DSHS to use staffing agencies to secure out-of-state medical personnel for Texas hospitals and asked hospitals to voluntarily halt elective medical procedures.

The state will fully fund the temporary health workers through Sept. 30.

"The medical personnel and equipment deployed by DSHS will provide crucial support to our health care facilities as they treat hospitalized cases of COVID-19," Abbott said in a statement. "Texans can do their part to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and hospitalizations by getting the vaccine. It's safe, effective, and your best defense against COVID-19.” — Allyson Waller

Texas Supreme Court pauses San Antonio mask mandate for public schools

The Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked San Antonio’s mask mandate for public schools Thursday — the latest in the tug-of-war legal battle between local governments and the state’s Republican leadership over mandatory face coverings.

The state’s highest civil court put the mandate by officials in San Antonio and Bexar County on pause, overriding a ruling a week ago by the 4th Court of Appeals — which had cleared the way for officials to compel students, teachers, school staff and visitors at K-12 public schools to wear masks.

The appeals court upheld an earlier ruling by a lower court judge that blocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning local mask mandates and allowed local officials to reinstate a mandate that state Supreme Court justices put on hold the week before.

Abbott and the state are embroiled in multiple legal battles with cities, counties and school districts in the state’s urban areas over mask mandates.

On Wednesday, a state district judge in Dallas sided with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in his bid to enact his own mask mandate for public schools, colleges and businesses — in defiance of Abbott.

Soon after, Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the ruling — temporarily making the mask mandate unenforceable. — Joshua Fechter

Dallas County can require masks, judge rules — siding against Gov. Greg Abbott

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins can require masks in public schools, colleges and businesses, a state district judge ruled Wednesday — siding against Gov. Greg Abbott.

Jenkins’ latest court victory will more than likely be short-lived. Attorney General Ken Paxton is all but guaranteed to appeal the ruling from state District Judge Tonya Parker — who blocked Abbott from enforcing his executive order that prohibits local mask mandates.

Abbott and Paxton have waged a legal war in recent weeks with cities, counties and school districts in Texas’ major urban areas that have tried to require masks — in defiance of the governor — to tamp down the spread of COVID-19. The battles have caused a degree of confusion and whiplash as lower courts allow the mandates, only to be overruled by higher courts.

Ten days ago, the Texas Supreme Court — the state’s highest civil court — halted Dallas County’s mask mandate. Jenkins then insisted the mandate was still in place, though the Supreme Court's actions took away his ability to fine businesses that flout his order. — Joshua Fechter

Despite health official’s suggestion, Leander school district not closing as infections rise

As hundreds of coronavirus infections are reported among Leander Independent School District students and staff in Central Texas, school officials are keeping the district open despite a local health official’s recommendation to close for 10 days.

In a letter to the Leander ISD community, which has more than 40,000 students, the district said its “case counts continue to rise,” and it had a total of 210 reported coronavirus cases last week and almost 150 reported cases this week. Dr. Amanda Norwood, medical director of the Williamson County and Cities Health District, said in an email to the district that about 43% of cases in the district are occurring in elementary schools and the “vast majority” of cases are students.

“We are concerned that exposed contacts will continue to convert to cases at an alarming rate this week,” Norwood said. “The entire Trauma Service Area that serves Central Texas only has 1 PICU [pediatric intensive care unit] bed remaining. This level of spread is unsustainable for a school district and for the surrounding county.”

The district’s letter said school officials are focusing on classes most impacted by infections and that it is possible that elementary classrooms may be required to switch to remote learning. If case numbers continue to increase, the district said it may be forced to close “multiple classrooms and whole schools.”

“We share the concerns of WCCHD regarding the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” the letter said. “At this time, we do not believe a districtwide closure meets the needs of our students and families. While we have some pockets of concern, we also have several campuses with few positive cases.”

Norwood also recommended the school implement certain measures to tame the spread of COVID-19 such as universal masking, contact tracing, required quarantines and virtual options for students who are unable to be vaccinated.

Currently, the district requires mask-wearing in all district facilities, and the board of trustees approved a resolution Monday to require masks at least through Sept. 9. Parents are allowed to have their children opt out of the requirement. During yesterday’s board meeting, Superintendent Bruce Gearing said only about 10%, or about 3,900 students, opted not to wear masks while in school. The district has also said it would be conducting contact tracing for pre-K through sixth grade students.

Around the state, hospitals have been burdened with high numbers of ICU patients and a short supply of hospital staff in recent weeks as the highly contagious delta variant spreads rampantly. The dire situation led to districts in some rural communities shutting down in order to not overburden their already vulnerable medical facilities.

On Tuesday, James Young, superintendent of Kemp Independent School District, which has an enrollment of less than 2,000 students, announced that all district campuses would be closed Wednesday through Friday because of a “significant rise in Covid cases.” School there is set to resume Monday.

“While we understand that this may cause an inconvenience for families, we are taking this time to mitigate the spread of the COVID virus as we thoroughly disinfect all district facilities including transportation,” Young said. Allyson Waller

National Rifle Association cancels annual meeting, citing COVID-19 surge in Houston area

The National Rifle Association has canceled its 150th annual meeting in Houston, citing the surge of COVID-19 cases in the area, according to a statement Tuesday.

The event, which organizers say draws tens of thousands of visitors and 850 exhibitors, was scheduled for Sept. 3 to 5. The association said the event was previously planned for mid-May before being moved to September due to ”uncertainties around COVID-19 restrictions.” The NRA says it has nearly five million members, around 400,000 of whom are Texans.

“The NRA’s top priority is ensuring the health and well-being of our members, staff, sponsors, and supporters,” a statement from the association read. “We are mindful that NRA Annual Meeting patrons will return home to family, friends and co-workers from all over the country, so any impacts from the virus could have broader implications.”

COVID-19 cases have surged throughout Houston and Texas as the more-transmissible delta variant is spreading rapidly, especially among unvaccinated people. More Texas hospitals are reporting ICU bed shortages than at any point during the pandemic.

In the Houston area, Memorial Hermann health care system announced Monday it would be closing three suburban emergency centers to free up staff for hospitals being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Reese Oxner

Harris County approves spending $30 million to hire additional nurses for overwhelmed local hospitals

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved spending up to $30 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds to bring out-of-state nurses to the area to help hospitals overwhelmed by a fourth surge of the coronavirus.

The money could be reimbursed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency if it’s used to expand hospital capacity and spent by Sept. 30. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that contracts for relief nurses can be finalized and the nurses brought in by the end of the week.

“Day after day we're seeing increases and records being broken in the number of hospitalizations or the total number of people hospitalized,” Hidalgo told commissioners. “That purchasing power is what brings the nurses here. Everyone in the country is competing for nurses.”

Memorial Hermann health care system in Harris County announced Monday that it would be closing three suburban emergency centers to free up staff for hospitals being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

“The situation is very serious, and all Houstonians should be concerned,” system officials said in a statement.

Hospitals that had returned to pre-pandemic staffing levels due to a decline in COVID-19 cases were caught off-guard by the sudden surge last month, and many were left understaffed after burnout caused personnel to quit. The state had pulled thousands of relief nurses from hospitals across Texas in May after numbers declined over the spring.

At least 89 Texas hospitals reported being out of ICU beds last week, more than at any other time during the pandemic.

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state would be paying for 5,500 contract nurses to come to Texas hospitals, but counties and cities were also directed to seek funds themselves through FEMA to pay for any additional staff they needed. Karen Brooks Harper

San Antonio schools mask mandate heads back to Texas Supreme Court

Bexar County’s order requiring masks in public schools is — once more — before the Texas Supreme Court as the clash over face coverings raging between local governments and the state’s Republican leadership continues.

Gov. Greg Abbott asked the state’s highest civil court Monday to overturn an appeals court ruling last week that allowed Bexar County’s mask mandate for schools to stay in place — the latest in a series of ongoing court battles that have prompted local mask rules to be enacted, thrown out, then reinstated.

This time, Abbott wants justices to nix a Thursday ruling by the 4th Court of Appeals — which allowed San Antonio and Bexar County to order mask-wearing for students, teachers, school staff and visitors at K-12 public schools.

The appeals court upheld an earlier ruling by state District Judge Antonia Arteaga that blocked Abbott’s executive order banning local mask mandates with a temporary injunction — essentially reinstating the Bexar mandate after the Supreme Court temporarily nixed it the week before.

“The reinstated temporary injunction — in conjunction with the growing number of similar orders issued throughout the state — is causing severe and irreparable harm as it is enabling numerous municipalities to issue different responses to the disaster,” Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in a court filing Monday.

“Every moment the temporary injunction remains in effect, localities will continue to flout” Abbott’s order, Paxton wrote.

Officials with cities, counties and public schools have tried to put mask mandates in place as a way to try to prevent schoolchildren too young to get vaccinated from contracting the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 — at a time when Texas is undergoing a crushing wave of hospitalizations caused by the disease. Joshua Fechter

Rice University discovers dozens of COVID-19 false positives due to testing snafu, days after shifting classes online

Days after it moved its first two weeks of classes online due to a high number of students testing positive for the coronavirus, Rice University said Monday it has retested dozens of students and “all but one of those have turned out to be negative.”

According to officials, the university uses three providers for its testing program. As it started to ramp up testing again, it conducted 4,500 tests in the first nine days with initial results showing 81 positive results. Half of those positive tests came in last Thursday.

While the numbers seem small, officials say, it resulted in a 2% positivity rate. That is much higher than what Rice experienced last year, which was an average 0.24% when it ran 150,000 tests.

The university used the results as the basis for its decision to shift classes online for the first two weeks of the semester and push back the start of classes by two days as the delta variant continues to surge throughout Texas and the Houston area.

“This unusual campus positivity rate prompted us to take quick action and assume a more cautionary posture until we could determine whether there was a significant risk of widespread infection,” wrote Kevin Kirby, chair of the Crisis Management Advisory Committee, in a letter to students.

The university’s COVID-19 dashboard now shows 27 positive tests since Aug. 13.

Rice began investigating and determined one of the testing companies had changed its protocols that determine test results without alerting Rice. The university asked the company to revert to its previous testing protocols, which it has done. The university retested 50 people who previously tested positive twice with two different tests, and all but one came back negative. They released those students from isolation.

While officials said the plans would remain in place, they said students who have delayed moving into residence halls can begin any time after Sept. 3.

Ninety-five percent of the approximately 12,400 people in the Rice community are vaccinated, according to a university survey that has had a response rate ranging from 91% among faculty to 99% among undergraduates. Two hundred thirty people have indicated they do not plan to get vaccinated, university leaders said. University officials are requiring vaccinated people coming to campus regularly to get tested once a week and unvaccinated people to get tested twice per week.

“We must be particularly vigilant and not assume that the mitigation strategies that proved so effective last year, with a less infectious set of variants, will prove effective now,” Kirby said. “So we need an accurate understanding of infections in our community as most of our people return to campus for the fall semester.” — Kate McGee

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.