An appellate court on Thursday upheld the authority of Texas school districts to mandate masks, which many have lifted as coronavirus cases have dropped, dealing a blow to state officials locked in a months-long legal battle with schools.

The 3rd Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed a trial court’s decision to grant school districts, including Northside Independent School District, temporary injunctive relief from Gov. Greg Abbott’s July executive order prohibiting public entities from mandating masks. Northside ISD is the largest school district in San Antonio with more than 100,000 students.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office could appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, which does not have to accept the case.

David Thompson, who represented Northside and many other districts in the lawsuit, said he appreciated the court’s decision.

“We are very pleased with the 3rd Court of Appeals’ very thorough decision regarding the authority of school districts to require masks when necessary to educate students safely and protect the health of students, staff and communities,” he said.

In the Thursday ruling, the appellate court stated that the Texas Disaster Act does not give Abbott the power to prevent school districts from exercising their own authority to make decisions about what is best for the health and safety of their communities. Districts have that authority under the state education code, which Abbott never suspended.

“We conclude that the education code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’ the opinion states. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the education code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective face covering requirements are not subject to suspension under…the act.”

Most of the districts in the lawsuit no longer have mask mandates in place. Northside ISD rescinded its mask mandate Feb. 14 based on improving COVID-19 metrics in the area and in schools. The district had restored the mask mandate Jan. 20 while trying to combat the supercontagious omicron variant of the coronavirus and the high rates of absenteeism that accompanied it.

Six Texas school districts originally filed the lawsuit Aug. 12 against Abbott in Travis County, claiming the governor lacks the authority to prevent school districts from adopting mask mandates. The other school districts, including Northside, Dallas and Houston ISDs, and Austin Community College later joined the lawsuit.

At the time, COVID-19 cases had skyrocketed due to the delta variant, and children under age 12 could not receive a coronavirus vaccine. Meanwhile, school districts still had to provide in-person instruction to students because virtual learning was not funded by the state.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.