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No mask mandates? One Texas school district changed its dress code instead

The board for the Texas school district on Tuesday night amended its dress code to require masks to be worn by students and staff.

PARIS, Texas — While Texas school leaders decide whether to require masks, one district has apparently found a loophole to Governor Greg Abbott's ban on mandates.

The board for the Paris Independent School District in northeast Texas on Tuesday night amended its dress code, adding masks to the requirements. School starts Thursday for the Paris ISD, a district of about 3,900 students

"The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district," the district said in a statement. "Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority."

The Paris school board said in the statement that it is "concerned about the health and safety of its students and employees."

"The Board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues, and therefore has amended the PISD dress code to protect our students and employees," the statement said.

Ashlea Helms Mattoon spoke “in favor of” the dress code change at Tuesday’s board meeting. She has three kids in Paris ISD.

"My (11-year-old) daughter cannot receive a vaccine, so this is the only option for her in this current environment. And I know if we all do it together, that's going to be a lot easier and a lot more supportive for our children,” Mattoon said.

"I hope we can remember that it's not the masks that we're frustrated with, it's that we are living in a pandemic. This is one of our mitigation factors.” 

Dennis J. Eichelbaum is general counsel for Paris ISD.

“Based upon where we stand on the law and what the governor has done so far, we're acting consistent with the law,” Eichelbaum said. 

Some are calling Paris ISD’s decision a “loophole” to the governor's ban on mask mandates, as outlined in Executive Order GA-38.

“It's not a loophole, it's a law that's been there forever,” Eichelbaum said.

“The discussion really centered around Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code. And the fact that the trustees are given the exclusive authority to govern the schools of the district. Nothing in Executive Order 38 suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code. And so the school district felt comfortable in making its decision based on the fact that that law was still in place. There is nothing in the disaster order or any of the governor's orders that suspends Chapter 11. And so based upon Chapter 11, they took the opportunity to enforce their dress code,” Eichelbaum said.

Here’s part of what Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code says: “The trustees, as a body corporate, have the exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district.”

The Attorney General lists the “Government Entities Unlawfully Imposing Mask Mandates” online

Paris ISD is included on the list. Eichelbaum said he received a letter from the AG’s office.

“We will respond accordingly, which is basically to say that we're following this law. Can you show us any evidence that the governor has suspended (Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code)?”

The Paris-Lamar County Health District this week reported 435 active cases of COVID-19 in the county. About 33% of eligible residents in Lamar County are fully vaccinated, according to state data. 

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have surged across Texas over the last month due to the prevalence of the Delta variant. The spike in cases has led some school districts, including Dallas and Fort Worth, to defy Abbott's order that bans mask mandates from public officials.

RELATED: Rural Texas schools begin to temporarily close doors due to COVID-19 cases just days after classes begin

The issue went to the courts, and the Texas Supreme Court ultimately sided with Abbott. Still, Dallas ISD is keeping its mask requirement in place, for now, as Superintendent Michael Hinojosa argued the ruling only applied to Dallas County's mask requirement, not Dallas ISD's requirement.

Richardson, Desoto and Carrollton-Farmers Branch school districts also have mask requirements still in place.

Fort Worth ISD changed its requirement to a recommendation, though the Fort Worth board on Tuesday night decided to join a federal lawsuit challenging Abbott's order.

RELATED: Fort Worth ISD votes to join lawsuit against Gov. Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates