WEEKEND READ: Gov. Abbott contracts COVID-19 as Texas districts beg him to allow mask enforcement in schools

Texas Politics

Texas Gov Greg Abbott during a news conference (AP Photo/LM Otero)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It was another tumultuous week in Texas news.

This week, the COVID-19 surge remained at the forefront as COVID-19 cases rose locally and statewide. On Friday, Texas reported the highest hospitalization numbers since January and the highest average deaths per day since March.

As of Friday, there are 3,207 active COVID-19 cases in Austin-Travis County. There are 620 people hospitalized, 222 patients in the ICU and 162 people on ventilators. There are 11,762 active confirmed cases in Texas as of Friday.

But so much more is happening in the Lone Star State right now.

Gov. Greg Abbott diagnosed with COVID-19

On Tuesday afternoon, the news that Gov. Greg Abbott tested positive for COVID-19 reverberated across the state and the nation — as he became one of the first high-profile governors to contract the virus.

Abbott, who is vaccinated — and has possibly received a third booster shot, NBC News reports — tested positive Tuesday, just one day after he attended an indoor Republican Club meeting in north Texas, which was heavily attended and was notably scant of masking and social distancing.

In a tweet posted just hours before the diagnosis of his announcement, Abbott wrote: “Another standing room only event in Collin County tonight. Thank y’all for the enthusiastic reception.

While messages of support and well wishes poured in for the governor’s health, so did criticisms.

Hypocrisy?

It was revealed Abbott, who receives daily COVID-19 testing, received Regeneron monoclonal antibody treatment, which isn’t available for most patients.

“Greg Abbott attended a crowded, maskless indoor political event and now he unfortunately has COVID,” said Texas Democrat Julián Castro, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “He’s getting VIP treatment — a third booster shot, Regeneron — unavailable to everyday Texans. It’s the height of hypocrisy for him not to let schools require masks.”

Meanwhile, Texas Rep. Diego Bernal tweeted in part: “I don’t wish [COVID-19] on anyone… I do wish [Texas Republicans] had that energy when Dems got sick, and for those without access to a fraction of the care the Gov. is getting right now.”

Despite his own diagnosis, Abbott has maintained “personal responsibility”, is what’s called for at this moment. On Wednesday, the governor’s office released a statement indicating Abbott has no plans to bring back mask mandates or capacity limits.

The statement said in part: “Texans have learned and mastered the safe practices to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID, and do not need the government to tell them how to do so. Every Texan has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated.”

The battle to mask up

Abbott’s COVID-19 diagnosis and high standard of care was especially grating for many Texas school officials: as the governor’s ban on mask mandates in schools persists.

On Thursday, the Texas Supreme Court moved to allow school districts to impose mask mandates for the time being. It’s welcome news for the hundreds of school districts beginning classes this week.

Several major school districts across the state have enacted their own mandates, including Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston and Austin ISDs. The status of several mandates is temporary and statewide, and it’s unclear how many such requirements will play out in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, one north Texas district found a creative way around the governor’s ban on mandates: Paris ISD, located in Paris, Texas — about halfway between Dallas and Texarkana — made masks part of its official dress code, which the district says does not go against Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates.

Mask mandates appear to have had a positive effect on in-person learning. At Austin ISD, the district says 1,157 students opted for in-person learning after the requirement was made.

This week, Austin ISD Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde is making a national plea on behalf of Texas school districts. In her TIME piece, titled “Why I’m Mandating That Austin Schools Must Be Masked When Classes Start,” she said the move is not a political statement but is purely about the safety of the nearly 75,000 students returning for classes on Tuesday.

“What if a child dies on my watch? How do I say to you, ‘I’m really sorry. We did everything we could except for masking because the governor’s executive order prohibited me from doing so.‘ What does that do for a parent? How does that bring them comfort or solace?”

Dr. Stephanie Elizalde, TIME Magazine

At Eanes ISD in Austin, tensions boiled over this week, as the new school year was marked by instances of anti-mask aggression. Eanes ISD reports one of its teachers was physically assaulted by a parent, while another was verbally assaulted by parents.

The district, which has its own mask mandate in place, says a masked teacher had her face covering ripped off by a parent on Monday. Meanwhile, a masked teacher who was speaking to several parents was yelled at, because they said they couldn’t hear her through it.

First federal lawsuit against Abbott

On Wednesday, 14 child plaintiffs and their families filed the first federal lawsuit against Abbott: alleging his ban on mask mandates in schools puts children with disabilities in danger and is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The plaintiffs said Abbott’s ban violates the rights to public education programs for children with disabilities.

Reach KXAN digital content producer Russell Falcon by email at russell.falcon@kxan.com.

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