Live COVID-19 updates: Texas’ back-to-school season marked by mask mandate battles, rural districts’ closures

Joseph Situentes Pea, 13, receives his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic held in partnership between the Central Texas Food Bank and the University of Texas in Austin on July 21, 2021.

Editor's Note: For the latest news about COVID-19 in Texas, click here. Updates on this page ended on Aug. 20.

Texas Supreme Court temporarily allows school mask mandates to remain, in blow to Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton

Recommended Videos

The Texas Supreme Court has dismissed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott's request that it disallow mask mandates in Texas school districts — albeit on a technicality.

The Supreme Court's order Thursday temporarily allows school districts to require face coverings because it leaves in place previous temporary restraining orders issued by a Travis County judge, whom Paxton wanted the high court to overrule. Justices cited a provision that typically requires matters to go to an appellate court before it reaches the state's highest civil court.

State District Judge Jan Soifer issued temporary restraining orders against Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, clearing the way for Harris County and eight school districts to enact their own mask-wearing rules. Soifer also barred Abbott from enforcing his order “against Texas independent school districts.” Abbott, who is vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday but is not experiencing any symptoms.

In the past two weeks, Abbott and Paxton have sought to stem the tide of cities, counties and school districts challenging the governor’s pandemic executive order and putting their own mask mandates in place. Paxton's office argued to the state's Supreme Court that the patchwork of local mask mandates was causing "mass confusion" in Texas.

While Abbott and Paxton have had a few legal victories in temporarily removing some mask mandates, those victories have been short-lived. The high court has allowed the many legal challenges to continue playing out. Erin Douglas and Joshua Fechter

Rural schools shut down to prevent COVID-19 from overwhelming their communities

If you get sick in Iraan, a West Texas town with a population of about 1,300, there is a hospital — with 14 beds. There is no critical care, no ventilators and no ICU. The closest hospitals with those kinds of services are in Midland, Odessa and San Angelo, all 80 miles or more away.

So having 50 people in Iraan test positive for COVID-19 in the last few weeks is a scary thing.

When Tracy Canter, superintendent of the Iraan-Sheffield ISD, looked at the figures and then considered what the return to school could mean for her students and employees, the path seemed clear. She announced on Monday that the district would close until Aug. 30.

Three other rural districts in Texas have since taken the same route. All four districts are in areas where fewer than a third of residents are fully vaccinated, and nearby hospitals that offer critical care are experiencing staffing shortages while the delta variant wages war on the Texas health system. Brian Lopez

Texas schools must notify families of positive COVID-19 cases in classrooms

Texas school districts must now notify teachers, staff and students’ families of positive COVID-19 cases in classrooms or extracurricular or after-school programs, the Texas Education Agency announced in updated public health guidance Thursday.

This is a change from the TEA’s previous guidance, which didn’t explicitly require school districts to notify parents of a close contact with the virus.

Districts must still report positive cases to their local health departments and the state. Local health officials are also allowed to investigate COVID-19 cases in schools.

While school districts across the state issue mask mandates, the TEA maintains that it will not issue guidance on mask requirements until legal challenges get resolved related to Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning such mandates in schools. In its guidance, the TEA also states that Abbott’s mask order is not being enforced because of ongoing litigation. Brian Lopez

Texas hospitals may soon have more COVID-19 patients than they can handle

More Texas hospitals are reporting a shortage of intensive care beds than at any other time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state 18 months ago — just one sign among many that the health crisis is on track to reach its most dangerous phase yet, health officials say.

The latest surge of the virus has also caused new cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations to rise with record speed to just below their January peaks, as the highly contagious delta variant rips through the unvaccinated community at a rate up to eight times faster than earlier strains, officials said.

Between 93% and 98% of hospitalized COVID patients, depending on the area, are unvaccinated, officials said. With just under half of Texans fully vaccinated, the state still has some 16 million people who have yet to be protected from the virus.

New COVID-19 cases have reached a seven-day average of more than 14,000, still below the January peak of more than 19,000. But the number that worries health officials most is hospitalizations from COVID-19, which hit 12,227 on Monday — an increase of 2,186 since last week.

If the trend continues, the state could surpass the single-day record of 14,218, set on Jan. 11, before the end of the month. Karen Brooks Harper and Carla Astudillo