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Texas AG Paxton sues Richardson ISD over mask mandate. Will Dallas ISD be next?

Paxton pledges to sue every local entity that requires masks as the fight continues to play out in federal, state courts

By Talia Richman

Attorney General Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton gives remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Dallas. (Elias Valverde II/The Dallas Morning News)(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Friday that he filed a lawsuit against Richardson ISD, following through on his pledge to sue school districts who mandate masks.

The district defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local entities from requiring masks. The RISD trustees voted last week to affirm Superintendent Jeannie Stone’s decision to require face coverings, after they were forced to close an elementary school because of a spike in COVID-19 cases and a sixth grader was admitted into the intensive care unit.

Paxton noted in a release that the office anticipates filing additional lawsuits against the districts flouting the governor’s order. This could include Dallas ISD — the first to openly defy Abbott.

“Not only are superintendents across Texas openly violating state law, but they are using district resources —that ought to be used for teacher merit raises or other educational benefits — to defend their unlawful political maneuvering,” Paxton said in a statement.

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In a district statement, Richardson spokesperson Tim Clark stated that “RISD has not been served with such a lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation.”

RISD officials determined masks are necessary to protect students and staff amid a surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant. More than half of all public school students are too young to get the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking inside schools.

“We’re seeing COVID become increasingly bad. Having to shut down Brentfield [Elementary] was an eye-opener to us,” Richardson ISD board president Karen Clardy said after last week’s emergency meeting.

Richardson is among the first Texas districts to be sued by Paxton. Friday he also filed suit against the Galveston, Elgin, Spring and Sherman school districts, according to his office.

He has railed against the dozens of school districts and counties who stood firm on mask mandates, repeatedly posting on social media that he would sue them all. Paxton’s office maintains an ever-evolving list of local entities that are mandating masks.

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Meanwhile, Abbott’s order is tied up in both state and federal courts as districts and advocates push for mask mandates to be local decisions.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins is locked in a legal fight with the state over his decision to impose a local mask mandate for businesses and schools.

Disability Rights Texas recently escalated the legal battle, filing a federal lawsuit against Abbott, alleging his order unfairly harms children with disabilities.

Richardson trustees also recently voted to join an existing multi-district lawsuit challenging Abbott’s ban, which argues the governor’s executive order exceeds his authority and infringes on local control.

Paxton’s move could have federal implications, as well. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently opened investigations into five states that prohibit mask mandates, saying such bans may violate the federal law meant to protect students with disabilities.

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Department officials indicated they had not opened an investigation into Texas because its ban isn’t currently being enforced because of court orders.

The legal wrangling over masks comes as schools are reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases.

Schools statewide reported that nearly 74,000 students have tested positive just weeks into this school year, according to Texas Education Agency data. The state reported about 148,000 positive COVID-19 student cases for all of the last school year. Nearly 5.4 million students attend public schools in Texas.

Richardson, which enrolls roughly 37,400 kids, recorded more than 720 student cases just since early August. The district counted about 1,850 student cases total during last school year when many students were learning virtually.

RISD health services director Ashley Jones at last week’s meeting that she’s heard from school officials that some parents are coming together and deciding not to test their children on purpose.

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“This is the environment that we are starting our school with,” she warned.

The district closed Brentfield for 10 days after almost a quarter of its students were absent from in-person school last week, including 29 people with active COVID-19 cases.

The trustees said during their meeting that their main priority was keeping kids learning in-person, as safely as possible.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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