Joe Biden is setting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott up for showdown with feds
Greg Abbott speaking at FreePac, hosted by FreedomWorks, in Phoenix, Arizona (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott may soon be fighting a war on two fronts — with local officials and the federal government — to stave off mandatory COVID-19 prevention efforts after the Biden administration announced Wednesday it was going after states like Texas that try to ban universal masking at schools.

Saying that the federal government will not "sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators from protecting our children," Biden said he will use the U.S. Department of Education's civil rights enforcement authority to deter states from blocking mask mandates in classrooms.

"I'm directing the Secretary of Education, an educator himself, to take additional steps to protect our children," Biden said. "This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors trying to block and intimidate local school officials."

"If you aren't going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who's trying," Biden added.

Biden didn't directly name Texas or Abbott in his Wednesday remarks, but both Florida and Texas have made national headlines for efforts to block schools from requiring masks, even as children under 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine and the delta variant affects mostly the unvaccinated.

Biden's announcement could tee up another legal battle for Abbott, who is already fighting in state court Texas school districts which have implemented mask mandates as school kicked off this month. Abbott's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More than 50 school districts and at least eight counties are currently defying or have recently violated Abbott's executive order banning mask mandates, according to a tally released Wednesday by Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Paxton has pledged to aggressively fight to enforce the state's ban in court. His office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Abbott has said repeatedly that people must use "personal responsibility" in fighting the virus and that the time for mandates is over. The Republican governor who is up for reelection next year tested positive for the virus on Tuesday.

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona sent Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath a letter expressing support for local school districts that have implemented mask mandates.

Cardona said in the letter that school districts had received COVID-19 relief funds to use for "contact tracing, implementing indoor masking policies, or other policies aligned with CDC guidance" and that the federal government was monitoring whether the state's ban was in line with fiscal requirements attached to those funds. Texas has received $18 billion for public schools in COVID-19 relief dollars from the federal government and has already released $11 billion of it to the districts to spend.

Some Texas school districts which had implemented mask mandates have abandoned them after the Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked the universal masking requirements in Dallas and Bexar Counties. Other school districts, like Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, have pushed forward with their mandates.

Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he kept the mandate in place because the court's order didn't mention his district specifically. Hinojosa also said that Biden had thanked him for "having the courage for our students and our community," according to CBS DFW.

Biden also announced he would require vaccines for staff at nursing homes serving people on Medicaid or Medicare.

"I'm using the power of the federal government, as a payer of health care costs, to ensure we reduce those risks to our most vulnerable seniors," he said. "These steps are all about keeping people safe and out of harm's way."