An eventful Monday evening in the Texas Legislature featured the near-certain death of a bill that would prohibit public schools from requiring masks – thanks to fervent Texas Medical Association advocacy.
Meanwhile, TMA is now closely monitoring progress on a separate bill in which the author is pursuing a compromise on COVID-19 protection: allowing schools to make decisions on requiring face coverings while also allowing parents to opt out of masking requirements.
Both bills were scheduled for a hearing Monday in the House Public Education Committee. But House Bill 141 by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) – a TMA-opposed measure that would have kept public schools from requiring masks – didn’t end up being considered in Monday’s hearing after all. At this stage of the special session – which wraps up Sept. 6 – it is unlikely HB 141 will be able to pass, a victory for medicine.
But the issue of masking decisions is far from dead. The committee did hear House Bill 164 by Rep. Harold V. Dutton Jr. (D-Houston). As filed, it would allow school districts and charter schools to require “a face mask, face shield, or other face covering” to reduce the spread of disease. At the outset of debate on HB 164, however, Representative Dutton said he supported individual school districts making the decision on masks, “with the only caveat being that it ought to have a parent opt-out provision in there.”
Following that announcement, Austin pediatrician Kimberly Avila Edwards, MD, testified for TMA “on” (neither in support of nor against) HB 164, explaining to lawmakers that the bill being in flux “will require some more analysis and clarification.” Her testimony noted that the delta variant of COVID-19 “is straining our entire health care system,” with more people under age 50 being hospitalized than at any other point during the pandemic.
“Even with these circumstances, we prioritize children being back in classrooms for in-person learning. We recognize the significant toll the COVID-19 pandemic has played on all children academically, socially, emotionally, and physically,” Dr. Edwards said. “Schools must have the freedom to utilize and layer every mitigation strategy to keep our children safe and in the classroom. … Data clearly shows that when worn correctly, face mask coverings slow the spread of COVID-19. Masks work when they’re worn by everyone. We owe it to each other, our fellow Texans, to give our local communities the freedom they need to combat this virus.”
TMA lobbyist Troy Alexander told Texas Medicine Today that while TMA is supportive of allowing schools to make the decisions on masking, “it remains to be seen what the alternate language would look like” on HB 164.
He added that TMA is concerned about the potential for new amendment language to HB 164 which would create more permissible vaccine exemption laws, a “problematic” possibility for medicine in the wake of escalating numbers of conscientious exemptions to vaccinations that are required to attend public school, such as the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.