A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that the ban by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas on mask mandates in his state’s schools violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel’s decision bars state Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing the Republican governor’s executive order. The decision comes after parents of young children with disabilities and a disability rights group sued Texas officials this summer, alleging that Abbott’s executive order put students with disabilities at risk.
The order once again puts the power to set pandemic-related rules, such as issuing mask mandates, in the hands of local officials.
“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” wrote Yeakel, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, in Wednesday’s decision. “Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital’s intensive-care unit.”
The lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights Texas in late August, escalated the legal fight over mask mandates in schools as students returned to classrooms amid a Covid surge driven by the Delta variant of the coronavirus. It added to the long list of legal battles over pandemic policy in the state.
“In spite of national and local guidance urging precaution, Governor Abbott’s Executive Order prohibits local school districts from even considering whether to implement the most basic and effective COVID-19 prevention strategy in school settings,” the lawsuit read.
The suit named Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, Paxton and Abbott as defendants. None of their offices immediately responded to requests for comment on the ruling.
The Biden administration has worked to deter states like Texas from issuing such orders, announcing in August that the Education Department would use broad powers, including possible legal action, to put a stop to the state’s actions. The department wrote a letter to Texas in September, telling state officials it had opened a civil rights investigation into Abbott’s ban after the Texas Education Agency released a memo saying that “school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask.”
The letter to Texas was similar to ones the administration wrote to other Republican-led states — Iowa, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — issuing similar orders. The department wrote that the bans on mask mandates “may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from covid-19.”