The Texas Supreme Court’s order Thursday temporarily allows school districts to require face coverings. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

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The Texas Supreme Court cleared the way Thursday for school districts to require people to wear masks in classrooms — at least for now.

For cities, counties and school districts that have defied Gov. Greg Abbott by issuing mask mandates in public schools, the Thursday ruling is a victory on a technicality: The high court left in place a Travis County judge’s temporary restraining orders against Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. The court’s order cited a provision that typically requires matters to go to an appellate court before it reaches the state’s highest civil court.

Paxton asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to overturn a series of temporary restraining orders issued by state District Judge Jan Soifer that allowed Harris County and eight school districts to mandate masks in public schools. Soifer also ruled that Abbott could not enforce his executive order banning mask mandates “against Texas independent school districts.”

The local mask mandates in public schools seek to protect school children too young to get vaccinated from COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the state. Abbott, who is vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday but was not experiencing any symptoms.

The Supreme Court order is a blow for Abbott and Paxton. For the past two weeks, they have tried to beat back cities, counties and school districts that have either challenged Abbott’s order or ignored it altogether. Some 58 school districts and eight counties have instituted mask mandates of some kind, according to a list compiled by Paxton, whose office argued that the local mandates were causing “mass confusion” in Texas.

The Texas Education Agency on Thursday stated that Abbott’s mask order is not being enforced due to ongoing litigation.

As the state’s high court continues to allow other legal challenges to play out, Abbott could also soon be fighting his war against mask mandates on multiple fronts.

Abbott’s ban has sparked a federal lawsuit from a disability rights group representing 14 children alleging that Abbott’s order violates federal protections for students with disabilities because it prevents them from safely returning to in-person classes. And on Wednesday, President Joe Biden directed the U.S. Department of Education to use its civil rights enforcement authority to go after states that prevent mask mandates in public schools.

Amid the legal chaos, many school districts have abandoned plans to require masks. But others have moved forward with theirs. In a novel approach, Paris Independent School District made mask-wearing a part of the school dress code for students and employees.

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