On Monday, the Texas House of Representatives referred three bills related to mask mandates and public schools to the House Public Education Committee.

As school districts across the state continue defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s July executive order attempting to prohibit the mandates, Texans all across the state are growing confused, with an ever-changing legal landscape as challenges to the order make their way through the courts.

When Abbott announced the ongoing special session agenda on August 5, he included a request that the Texas Legislature consider “legislation providing strategies for public-school education in prekindergarten through twelfth grade during the COVID-19 pandemic, which ensures: the wearing of face coverings is not mandatory.”.

Legislative Prospects in the House Public Education Committee

There are less than two weeks remaining in the ongoing second-called special legislative session. The House just obtained the ability to start legislative business last week.

Both Republican State Reps. Jeff Cason (Bedford) and Jeff Leach (Allen) have filed bills that would explicitly prohibit mask mandates in public schools and both Cason’s bill and Leach’s bill were referred to the House Public Education Committee Monday. As of this publication, they are not yet scheduled for a hearing in committee.

Notably, the House Public Education Committee is composed of 7 Republican and 6 Democrat lawmakers. A majority of the lawmakers on the committee voted against a mask mandate prohibition amendment in the 87th regular legislative session as it was being considered in the overall Texas Pandemic Response Act on the House floor in early May. Those who voted against prohibiting a mask mandate include all of the Democrat State Reps. Harold Dutton Jr. (Houston), Alma Allen (Houston), Diego Bernal (San Antonio), Mary Gonzalez (El Paso), Terry Meza (Irving), and James Talarico (Round Rock). It also includes Republican State Rep. Steve Allison (San Antonio).

The committee is also chaired by Dutton, who authored his own bill that would explicitly allow school boards to determine whether districts will mandate the wearing of masks on children 12 years of age and younger in public schools. His bill was also referred to his committee Monday, but also has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in committee.

Growing List of School Districts Defying Abbott Executive Order

As public schools began their Fall semester last week all across the state, many did so in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates at the directions of their own school boards.

This has created a patchwork of various approaches sewing confusion for parents across the state wondering who is in charge, what rules apply, and why they aren’t free to choose what’s best for themselves and their families.

After expedited judicial review of such defiance, following a flurry of lawsuits and countersuits, the Texas Supreme Court temporarily allowed school mask mandates to stand last week and in response the list of school districts that have imposed these mandates continues to grow.

Meanwhile, many parents are pushing back against the new mandates and flooding school board hearings to voice their opposition.

The Absence of Action in 87th Regular Session Created the Situation We Are in Now

The issue that has arisen today is a direct result of the inaction of the state legislature during the regular session. Several House bills were filed to address the issue, including bills that would preclude the mandate of face coverings. None of those bills ever received a hearing in committees. The Senate not only did not consider a bill on the issue, they never had any filed in their chamber.

The sole vote to take place on the issue was on the aforementioned amendment to the Texas Pandemic Response Act. Ultimately, that amendment failed by a vote of 71 in favor and 72 in opposition when seven Republican lawmakers voted with Democrats to allow both the governor and local governments to be able to require the wearing of masks when responding to a pandemic. Those Republican lawmakers included State Reps. Steve Allison (San Antonio), Travis Clardy (Nacogdoches), Drew Darby (San Angelo), Charlie Geren (Ft. Worth), Kyle Kacal (College Station), Lyle Larson (San Antonio), and Four Price (Amarillo).

By not addressing the issue in the legislative session, the Legislature continued to give deference to Abbott to issue mandates via executive order, leaving the fate of those proclamations in the hands of the courts. Now that they have once again returned to business in the capitol, lawmakers can finally take action to permanently prohibit mask mandates in schools.

Jeramy Kitchen

Jeramy Kitchen serves as the Capitol Correspondent for Texas Scorecard as well as host of 'This Week in Texas', a show previewing the week ahead in Texas politics. After managing campaigns for conservative legislators across the state, serving as Chief of Staff for multiple conservative state legislators, and serving as Legislative Director for the largest public policy think tank in Texas, Jeramy moved outside of the Austin bubble to focus on bringing transparency to the legislative process.