A coalition of teacher federations, union representatives and Houston area parents gathered Aug. 11 in front of Houston ISD's Hattie Mae White Education Support Center to call for school districts across the Greater Houston area to implement mask mandates ahead of the 2021-22 school year.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise, and with children under the age of 12 not able to get vaccinated, advocates said mask mandates are a vital tool that must be used to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in schools.

"We believe that all students deserve safe learning environments and that all staff deserve safe working environments," said Hany Khalil, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation. "That means that the first duty of school officials is to provide safety."

The group gathered included representatives from teacher unions from eight school districts, including HISD, Aldine ISD, Fort Bend ISD, Cy-Fair ISD and North East ISD, among others.

HISD Superintendent Millard House II has proposed a mask mandate that would apply to all students and employees in district facilities and on school buses. Khalil said he commended House for taking action despite an executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting public school districts from enacting such mandates.

In criticizing Abbott's order, Daniel Santos, executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, accused Abbott of "playing politics with our children's lives." He also condemned guidance from the Texas Education Agency that allows school districts to decide whether or not they inform parents of positive cases or launch contract tracing.

"This is the same agency that thinks they know how to run our school districts better than we," Santos said. "They are putting students, staff and our entire community at further risk at a time when our hospitals are completely full."

With family members at home with weakened immune systems, HISD student Ana Angeles said a mask mandate would provide a sense of relief and control.

"We have to do the best we can to prevent spreading the new variant of COVID in general," she said.

Mask mandates have been enacted at other Texas school districts, including Austin ISD, Dallas ISD and Spring ISD, while others have opted to keep them optional, such as Fort Bend ISD. Some local county leaders with Harris County and Fort Bend County have authorized county attorneys challenge Abbott's ban in court.

The coronavirus testing positivity rate hit 19% on Aug. 11 and has been rising rapidly since hitting a low point around 4% in early July. The number of severely ill COVID-19 patients in hospitals has also been increasing, both locally and statewide, prompting Abbott to ask hospitals to voluntarily postpone elective medical procedures as the state deals with a health care staffing shortage.

The HISD school board is expected to take a vote of support on the mask mandate at its Aug. 12 meeting. A more detailed back-to-school safety plan is expected to be released by the district later this week as well.

The mask mandate would go into effect on the first day of school, Aug. 23.