The Northside Independent School District board of trustees unanimously voted Tuesday to join 18 other school districts suing Gov. Greg Abbott over his July executive order prohibiting school districts and other governmental entities from mandating masks.

The vote came a week after the board of Bexar County’s largest school district unanimously decided to implement a temporary mask mandate. The mandate went into effect Monday, NISD’s first day of school. More than 100,000 students attend the district.

Superintendent Brian Woods described the lawsuit as school districts “seeking to gain local control over decisions made for students and staff and to put that in the hands of our board of trustees.” Board President Karen Freeman said she supported participating in the case because the board knows what the needs of the NISD community are.

“We are the closest people to our community,” she said. “The state’s very large, and everybody has different needs from one side of the state to the other.”

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 Dallas and Houston ISDs, and Austin Community College have joined the lawsuit since then as intervenors, or third parties that were not named as original parties in the suit but have stakes in the outcome of the civil case.

“It is vital for local school boards to be able to adopt basic safety measures on a local level to allow in-person education,” the suit states.

The lawsuit goes on to state that there “seemed that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel” with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines earlier this year but that the highly contagious delta variant snuffed out that light. It cites the drastic rise in hospitalizations, particularly among unvaccinated people, that began in July. Children under age 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated.

“For these vulnerable, young children in our schools, who cannot be vaccinated, simple safety precautions like face coverings and social distancing are vital to protecting their health and safety,” the suit states.

Statewide, at least 13,666 people were hospitalized because of COVID-19 complications as of Monday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

At a Tuesday press conference, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said local hospitals were treating 1,418 people for COVID-19, 140 of which have been admitted since Monday. Almost 90% of those patients are unvaccinated.

Mask mandates are currently allowed in city and county buildings and public schools under a temporary injunction granted by a Bexar County district judge Aug. 16. That order keeps the mask mandates in place until December, when a trial is set for the case. But Abbott asked the Texas Supreme Court to block the mask mandate in San Antonio and Bexar County.

The Texas Education Agency announced Thursday that it would not enforce the executive order banning mask mandates in public schools while the ongoing litigation plays out in the courts.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.