AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that public schools must end mask requirements starting in June and ordered Texas' cities and counties to drop nearly all face covering mandates by the end of the week.
The announcement does not affect businesses, which can still require customers or workers to wear masks. But the change amounts to the biggest rollbacks of Texas' Covid-19 safeguards since Abbott ended a statewide mask mandate in March.
The move comes as virus cases and deaths continue plunging in Texas, and as the Covid-19 vaccine is now available to children as young as 12 years old. Public hospitals, jails and state-supported living centers will still be allowed to require masks.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask indoors or outdoors and can stop social distancing in most places. Masks are still recommended for the remainder of the school year, but Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said that her agency is working on guidance for the fall.
The Texas State Teachers Association criticized Abbott’s decision as premature.
In a statement, the head of the association, Ovidia Molina, said Abbott should have waited until the CDC issued updated guidance on masks for the 2021-22 school year. Molina acknowledged that some Texas school districts have already ended their mask requirements but said the association believes "that also is ill-advised."
"The health and safety of our students, educators and communities must remain our first priority as we attempt to emerge from this pandemic," Molina said.
The Texas American Federation of Teachers was also critical of Abbott's decision, calling it "unconscionable" given that a vaccine is not yet available for kids under 12 years old. Even if the normal school year is coming to a close, both TSTA and Texas AFT noted Abbott's order will impact students who attend in-person summer school.
Despite ending the statewide mask requirement, Abbott has continued to take hits from some fellow Republicans over his pandemic response. One of them, former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, launched a primary challenge to Abbott last week and said after Abbott's announcement Tuesday that Texas "never should have never allowed mask mandates in the first place."