Despite Gov. Greg Abbott's best efforts, 52 school districts and counties across the state, including several in the Austin area, have defied the governor's order and employed mask mandates in time for the 2021 school year.
Some districts, including Travis County's Eanes ISD, reversed their mandate after the Texas Supreme Court upheld Abbott's ban on local mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties on Aug. 15. But the Supreme Court appeared to change course as it sided with a Travis County judges' temporary restraining orders against Abbott's ban on Thursday, albeit only on a technicality.
The Texas Education Agency retaliated Thursday night as well and said they would not enforce Abbott's ban on any districts. Over the weekend, Austin ISD upped its safety protocols even further, announcing it would limit football games to 25% capacity for the second year in a row, while Round Rock ISD's superintendent said they could be tweaking their opt-out masking provisions as pediatric cases continue to rise.
The ping-pong game of a legal battle has left many parents, residents and even local officials confused on what authority has the power to enforce mask mandates as the highly contagious Delta variant continues to raise concerns for students, many of whom don't yet qualify for vaccination.
Here's how Austin-area schools are able to keep mask mandates despite the efforts of the state:
BREAKING: The Texas Supreme Court imposes a temporary halt to lower court decisions that overruled the State ban on mask mandates.— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) August 15, 2021
The ban doesn't prohibit using masks. Anyone who wants to wear a mask can do so, including in schools.https://t.co/QeVipZMPWH
Governor Greg Abbott reversed his statewide mask mandate in March, effectively banning mask enforcements in all Texas cities and school districts. Since then, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, among other GOP lawmakers, have upheld a "personal choice mantra" when it comes to masking up.
Abbott's executive order leans on the Texas Disaster Act, which he says gives him the power to decide how to respond to statewide emergency situations. The clause says that Abbott can declare a "state of disaster" for a number of natural and man-made events, including an epidemic.
Sec. 418.02 of the mandate allows Abbott to "issue executive orders, proclamations, and regulations and amend or rescind them. Executive orders, proclamations, and regulations have the force and effect of law."
Under that clause, Abbott has both added and rescinded it's statewide mask mandate and enforced other safety measures including closing bars and limiting capacity,
But many school districts and cities say the clause doesn't give Abbott that breadth of power.
Cities, districts push back
ALL schools in Travis County should enforce masking.— Andy Brown (@TravisCoJudge) August 20, 2021
We’re seeing more COVID cases in schools and in younger people generally.
While many districts have been waiting for the courts, per new TEA guidance and the Texas Supreme Court ruling, our mask mandate is in effect
Seven school districts and cities have pushed lawsuits against the ban, with dozens more choosing to implement their own version of mask enforcement. Travis County and Austin ISD were among the first to make a move, joining Dallas and Bexar counties in employing mandates in their schools.
Dallas struck first with the most comprehensive mandate in the state, requiring masks on Dallas ISD properties as well as Dallas County businesses, while Bexar maintained pre-K-12 public schools and city facilities.
Austin soon followed suit. On Thursday, Aug. 12, the city mandated masking for residents over the age of 2 on city and county property, including public schools.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown said the decision would help protect kids under 12 who are still unable to get vaccinated, resulting in an increase in pediatric cases countywide.
"The order I signed today will protect countless lives and keep our community safe by requiring masks in public schools and county buildings," Brown said. "Our community faces the largest COVID-19 surge since the start of the pandemic."
Harris County joined other Texas metros in enforcing the ban days later, with a county judge siding with the county's restraining order. Soon 48 other districts across Texas defied Abbott's order as well. Paris ISD, a small district in northeast Austin, added masks to their dress code as a way to work around the ban.
Local courts, Supreme Court rulings clash
Over 50 TX gov’t entities have mandated masks in violation of law. I’m fighting all of it. San Antonio ISD has taken the even more egregious & illegal step of mandating vaccines for staff. This is plainly illegal & contrary to @GregAbbott_TX GA-38. So once again, I’m suing. https://t.co/lE1RgXLFtA— Attorney General Ken Paxton (@KenPaxtonTX) August 20, 2021
The moves didn't go unchallenged, however. On Sunday, August 15, the Texas Supreme Court sided with Abbott, striking down restraining orders in both Dallas and Bexar counties
Both counties were undeterred, however, and kept their mandate with few amendments. A hearing by a local judge in San Antonio the following day sided with the city in the ruling, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was immoved by the verdict.
"For us this is not a battle over politics. This is about human beings versus the virus. And we're standing with our local hospitals and school superintendents to protect human life," Jenkins said.
On Thursday night, the Texas Supreme Court reversed course in allowing Travis County to uphold its mask mandate, though only on a technicality: because Abbott's appeal skipped a hearing in lower courts before reaching the Supreme Court, the court was not allowed to make a decision. On the same day, the TEA stopped enforcing Abbott's mandate in public schools as well.
The ruling was a victory for Austin ISD, who joined some South Texas schools and Harris County ISD in newfound immunity. But it's likely only temporary: Attorney General Ken Paxton said the office would continue to sue districts that violate Abbott's order, and the state will likely attempt to fine or defund schools that refuse to comply.
"Over 50 Texas government entities have mandated masks in violation of law," Paxton said on Twitter. "I'm fighting all of it... this is plainly illegal & contrary to Abbott's GA-38. So once again, I'm suing."
Travis County districts react
Several Austin-area districts have enforced mask mandates, while others have changed course after receiving pushback. Here's the latest on each district:
Austin ISD is still staunch in their mask mandate and is looking for more restrictions to ensure safety after students returned to campus Tuesday. The district is the largest in the area to allow virtual learning this year alongside nearby districts Round Rock, Leander, Pflugerville and Del Valle and has over 4,000 enrolled, some of which aren't even in the district themselves but are looking for a safer option. The school district will once again enforce contact tracing, meaning any student that comes into contact with someone infected with COVID will need to quarantine for 10-14 days. In addition, Austin ISD football games will once again be conducted at 25% capacity.
Round Rock ISD is implementing an opt-in style of masking, though that could be subject to change-the superintendent has asked the school board to edit its mandate to allow students to opt-out only for health or developmental circumstances.
Eanes ISD- in a roller coaster of events, Travis County's Eanes ISD enforced masks, reversed course and enforced them once again after parent protests and a teacher altercation made the district a political battleground. The district reported Friday that a parent ripped a mask off of a teacher at a meet-the-teacher event and another was yelled at.
Pflugerville, which also has a temporary restraining order against Abbott's ban, implemented a mask mandate within schools and city properties over the weekend.
Leander ISD- Despite protests from some parents, Leander ISD decided to uphold its mandate on Wednesday as cases in the area continue to climb.
Hays CISD, Hays County's largest district, hasn't employed any mask mandates, though many are fighting for that to change. Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra has upheld a temporary restraining order against Abbott's ban, but the district superintendent has not yet upped COVID restrictions. A school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday will likely become heated as they look to find a solution.
Del Valle ISD, Manor ISD, Dripping Springs ISD, San Marcos CISD and Travis County United ISD have also enforced similar mask requirements.
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Six days a week, thousands of onlookers tune in to live streams to watch the pros rake it all in at high-stakes poker tournaments. The big-name poker players aren't in Las Vegas or even Oklahoma's finest casinos—instead, they're where Texas Hold 'Em gets its name.
Gambling may be illegal in Texas, but over a hundred poker houses are using a loophole to open up shop across the state, especially in Austin and Dallas.
The classic poker game is finally getting played for real cash around the Lone Star State thanks to an exception in Texas' gambling ban that allows poker games to be played in private residences. Instead of taking a cut from the pot like traditional gambling ventures, private poker houses don't make money from the results of a game; instead, they get their revenue from membership and hourly fees.
It's a business strategy that's gone (mostly) unchallenged by Texas politicians, especially as the industry begins to heat up.
Austin may now have around 20 poker houses around town, but it wasn't long ago that one stood alone like a small town saloon. The city's premiere poker house, Texas Card House, was founded in 2015 and has since grown to include a YouTube channel with over 30,000 subscribers, a wide range of gameplay and regular visits from big-name poker gurus like Brad Owen and Doug Pope.
David Lagana, a content creator who has worked in college sports and Hollywood, was brought into the scene in May as the house's live streams began to blow up. He said the live streaming battleground is only beginning.
"The space is ever-growing," Lagana said. "It's been interesting to try and find a lane that everybody can succeed. It's all about finding something that people want to watch on a nightly basis."
Can Player BLUFF Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen on LIVE Stream?
Watch now - https://t.co/4Wt4s5Z0V7@TheBradOwen @andrewneeme pic.twitter.com/Yg4R0c0sj2
— Texas Card House (@texascardhouse) August 25, 2021
Carolyn Hapgood, who has worked for Texas Card House for three years, has made a name for herself as a live stream producer, dealer and player herself with the company. She's seen Texas Card House grow from a two-room card house to the most well-known poker venue in Austin with another branch in Dallas.
"It was a teeny tiny little house with five tables, and that was the first legal card house in the state," Hapgood said. "And since then it's blown up."
Texas Card House dealer Carolyn Hapgood has been working with Austin's premier poker house since 2018. (Texas Poker House Austin/Facebook)
From $100 pots to buy-ins of $15,000 or more, Texas Card House has it all, especially as in-state players learn more about the game. Hapgood said there isn't really a typical poker player at the house—instead, the poker table forms an "interesting little ecosystem" that includes college students, a 93-year old Vietnam War veteran, online gamblers, old-school players and everyone in between. The diversity at the table has been enhanced even further by COVID as people clamor to return to in-person events.
But Texas Card House no longer holds a "royal flush" in Austin's poker culture. The Lodge, based in Round Rock, is now expanding to over 60 tables, the largest in Texas, while Palms Social Club, owned by Texas Card Houses' original owner Sam Von Kennel, brought service staff and a refined atmosphere to the Austin scene.
Hapgood said the base of poker players is very large and continues to grow, forming a community as players form friendships on and off the table.
"My favorite part of the poker community is how much fun we have," Hapgood said. "You sit at a table with eight of your friends, everyone's kind of just having a good time. There's a lot of players who will, you know, call or text each other after they're done playing, and they end up inviting each other barbecues, and going out to dinner with their families and stuff like that... those are my favorite people to hang out with."
Getting involved in the poker scene is as easy as tuning into a live stream, and Lagana hopes to see more outsiders like himself get inspired by poker in the future.
"It's kind of like life," Lagana said. "Life isn't just one hand to play... you're only in control of sort of what's in your hand (and) you can't play the card that you weren't dealt with. So it's really been a fascinating life lesson for me."
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From four-time Grammy-nominee turned big-screen actor, Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton will debut in the sci-fi short film "Devexity," which is written, directed by and stars Austinites.
The film, brought to life by Austin-based filmmaker Luke Lidell, will premiere on Oct. 7 at the Native Hostel while Burton is in town for Austin City Limits Fest. Then, "Devexity" will head off to film festival screenings, according to a report by The Austin Chronicle.
Following Burton as the film's protagonist, named Jean, "Devexity" takes place across several different settings and surfaces an existential response from the watcher. Burton stars alongside fellow Austinites Ali Pentecost, Dominique Pitts and New Yorker Madison Murrah in the partially black-and-white film.
The film was shot over the course of four days in October 2020, which Lidell said was a challenge of "focus" and "trust" to create. With a variety of scenes and intertwining narratives, the film dives into the topic of virtual reality.
A musician in addition to a filmmaker, Lidell previously directed the film "Telekinetic" in 2018. The script for "Devexity" was written by Lidell with Burton in mind for the lead after meeting him during a music video project in 2017—Lidell said Burton helped him shape the characters along the way.
Now that the door has been opened for work between Burton and Lidell, you're likely to see the pair collaborate again—a Black Pumas documentary is being rumored.
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The University of Texas at Austin welcomed more incoming freshmen than ever before, with 9,060 new Longhorns, thanks to the rise of on-time graduations allowing the university to admit more undergraduates.
The count was taken on the 12th day of class, Sept. 10, beating out the previous high of 8,960 from 2018. The new class is also setting records for its diversity, citing a rise of Black, Hispanic and Asian undergrads.
@UTAustin is serving more first-generation and historically underrepresented groups than ever, while raising grad rates for all, including our growing population of Pell-eligible students pic.twitter.com/qYQPEfUXG4
— Jay Hartzell (@JCHartzell) September 20, 2021
"People all across the UT community have been working hard to recruit, attract, retain and support even more talented and diverse students, staff members and faculty members who can change the world," UT President Jay Hartzell said. "I'm proud that our combined enrollment of historically underrepresented groups has reached record levels for the second year in a row."
A 3% enrollment rise can be attributed to UT's all-time high graduation rates: the four-year graduation rate rose from 72.2% to 72.7%, while the six-year student rate rose from 87.6% to 87.7%.
Of the 51,992 students on UT's campus, 13,366, or 29.6%, come from historically underrepresented groups—including Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander—one of the highest totals out of the Association of American Universities and a record-breaking percentage.
With this new class, the university is also serving more first-generation students and Hispanic students than ever before, making up 22.9% and 27.1% of the undergrad student body, respectively. Last year, UT hit a quota of 25% Hispanic students to qualify as a Hispanic-Serving Institution and received the Seal of Excelencia for its commitment to the success of Latin students.
Black students fell just a bit, from 5.3% to 5.2% university-wide, though the actual enrollment amount is up, from 2,193 to 2,219.
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