Only a few students wore masks when classes started a few weeks ago, before the first and then the second teacher at Connally Junior High School died of covid-19. Every face emerging from the line of yellow school buses was covered on Tuesday morning.

Masks are now required for all students and staff in the Connally Independent School District, which is located on the outskirts of Waco. The decision was made late last week in response to the deaths of two teachers and an increase in cases in the community.

In May, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) prohibited school districts and other governmental entities from requiring masks, arguing that it should be a matter of personal choice. Several big-city school districts defied him as the school year began, despite the fact that the highly contagious delta variant was bearing down on them. The order was then put on hold by a court.

Many smaller, more rural school districts are now following in the footsteps of their larger-city counterparts.

Many people in this town have sided with Abbott. Masks were optional when school first started, and only about 10% of students chose to wear them, according to Jill Bottelberghe, an assistant superintendent. However, there are signs that this is changing.

Manager Melanie Lloyd of Dave’s Burger Barn, a popular hangout just off the Connally High School campus, said she has noticed a “significant increase” in the number of students wearing masks in the restaurant. Students, she said, have been deeply affected by the deaths of two Connally social studies teachers: David “Andy” McCormick, 59, a longtime community resident who taught seventh grade, and Natalia Chansler, 41, who taught sixth grade.

Almost all schools required masks for in-person teaching last school year, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is one of the best ways to prevent virus transmission. However, as caseloads decreased in the spring and early summer, Republican officials in nine states, including Texas, informed school districts that masks would not be required for the upcoming school year. Court intervention has put those orders on hold in three of the nine states: Texas, Florida, and Arkansas. Six others continue to oppose mask mandates, a stance that the Biden administration has slammed as anti-public health. The federal Education Department’s civil rights office is investigating all six states for possibly denying students with disabilities, some of whom are at heightened risk of covid, the right to a free and appropriate education.

While Abbott’s order is on hold, an increasing number of school districts in Texas have moved to implement mandates. According to Frank Ward, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency, this includes not only large cities but also smaller, less expected districts. Ward claimed that the virus had “bubbled off” in rural areas, with few cases and little masking. “They are now being profoundly affected.”

According to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, more than 80 school districts are in violation of the governor’s order prohibiting mask mandates.

Connally took action after the second teacher died and the district’s positive case count increased. The district canceled four days of classes, rescheduled a highly anticipated football game, and, for the first time, made coronavirus testing available to any student, parent, or other community member who requested it. More than 16% of those tested were positive, with many showing no symptoms.

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District then issued a sobering warning to the district. The number of new daily cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from covid was higher last week than at any other point in the pandemic, according to the CDC.

According to Superintendent James Lenamon, the rising number of cases prompted McGregor Independent School District, located on the other side of Waco, to implement a mask mandate. The requirement will go into effect if more than 2% of coronavirus tests in the district come back positive, according to a new policy that went into effect this week. Campuses will close if the rate exceeds 5%.

Masks were required at all four McGregor schools on Tuesday.

While the delta surge has had an impact on McLennan County, Republican officials’ attitudes have not changed, according to Portia Bosse, director of public affairs for the Texas State Teachers Association. The legislature considered a bill that would allow schools to implement mask requirements, but it adjourned without taking action.