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'We must remain vigilant' | Houston ISD to vote on mask mandate for students, staff and visitors

The district is considering a mask requirement despite a ban on such mandates by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

HOUSTON — Houston ISD will soon vote on a proposed mask requirement for the coming school year, despite the governor's ban on such mandates, Superintendent Millard House II announced late Thursday.

The mask mandate would apply to students, staff and visitors at all schools, regardless of vaccination status. The proposal will be voted on next week by the district's Board of Education, according to House.

"The rate of COVID-19 cases is rising in our communities and Harris County is now at threat level red," stated House in a press release late Thursday. "We must remain vigilant and use every tool we have to keep this virus at bay."

KHOU 11 is hosting a live Q&A with Superintendent House at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 16. For more information, click here.

Houston ISD's decision to consider a mask mandate came the same day that Harris County raised its COVID threat level guidance to "red," which is the highest level. In short, that guidance recommends people get vaccinated, stay home and work safe.

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Leaders and school districts are dealing with a spike in COVID cases across the country, driven mostly by the Delta variant, just a head of the 2021-2022 school year.

Previously, HISD was among districts that stated they had no intention of bucking state orders that ban COVID-related mandates, including masks. So far, there's no word from Austin on a reaction from the governor.

Superintendent House released this statement Thursday night:

"The health and safety of our students and staff continues to be our guiding compass in all of our decisions. As a result, during tonight’s agenda review meeting, I announced that I will propose a mask mandate for students, staff, and visitors at all schools, buses, and facilities to be voted on next week by the Board of Education. The rate of COVID-19 cases is rising in our communities and Harris County is now at threat level red. We must remain vigilant and use every tool we have to keep this virus at bay. Therefore, the mask mandate will become effective upon Board approval during next Thursday’s board meeting on August 12."

Many expect a bumpy ride when busses roll into the new school year as far as COVID is concerned. You can read more about other Houston-area district responses here.

On Friday afternoon, unions representing teachers and support staff in Houston-area schools issued a joint letter calling on school districts to immediately implement mask mandates.

The letter is signed by leaders from Gulf Coast teacher and support staff unions, joined by the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, which represents 92 local unions with over 60,000 members in 13 Gulf Coast counties.

The full text of the letter can be found here.

Gov. Greg Abbott has not responded to HISD’s proposal and his press office told KHOU 11 News they have no response.

Gov. Abbott did tweet a video Friday afternoon urging families to get vaccinated before school starts. But children under 12 aren’t eligible, and the union says many elementary school teachers are nervous.

Dr. Gwen Pauloski teaches high school English in HISD.

“I am so grateful again that our superintendent… and I have a feeling he won’t be the last, has taken this risk,” she said.

Dr. Pauloski calls masking in classrooms “essential.” She says requiring them boosts compliance.

“We kept our kids safe last year,” she said.

Andy Dewey with the teachers’ union said enforcing it could be tricky because each campus has their own dress code policy and enforcement.

“Our fear is that it’s not going to be strictly enforced on the campuses, regardless of whether it’s mandated or not,” Dewey, with the Houston Federation of Teachers, said.

The other big unknown is what Gov. Abbott will do.

KHOU 11 political analyst Bob Stein said the governor could fine the school board or superintendent, withhold funding, or even send in DPS officers.

“But it raises the obvious: he doesn’t have many, how can I say, many arrows in his quiver to get what he wants,” he said.

Stein believes the governor’s real aim is sending a message to primary voters.

But Abbott has an item on the new special session agenda that would ban school districts from creating mask mandates.

Also watch: Houston-area school districts react to "red" COVID threat level in Harris County

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