A federal judge has ruled that a ban imposed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, on mask mandates in schools violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, a decision that could have national implications as several other states are embroiled in legal battles over face covering requirements for children.
The ruling Wednesday from U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, the latest development in the closely watched feud, allows local leaders to once again decide whether they want to implement mask mandates in their school districts.
The state says it plans to appeal the ruling.
Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group, challenged the Republican governor’s ban in August, arguing that it discriminates against students with disabilities — many of whom have health conditions that put them at greater risk for severe illness or death — by forcing them to risk exposure to the coronavirus or stay home from school. Disability advocates have argued that the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law enacted in 1990, superseded Abbott’s order from late July.
Yeakel agreed, barring Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, from enforcing Abbott’s order.
“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” wrote Yeakel, of the Western District of Texas. “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 judge, an appointee of President George W. Bush, noted that more than 210,000 students in Texas have tested positive for the coronavirus between the beginning of the 2021-22 school year and Oct. 31, according to state data. Those most affected have conditions such as Down syndrome, heart or lung ailments, organ transplants and weakened immune systems.
“The evidence presented by Plaintiffs establishes that Plaintiffs are being denied the benefits of in-person learning on an equal basis as their peers without disabilities,” he wrote in the 29-page ruling. The ruling lists Paxton, as well as the Texas Education Agency and its commissioner, Mike Morath, as defendants in the lawsuit.
Spokespeople for Paxton and the Texas Education Agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Paxton’s office tweeted Wednesday night that it planned to pursue an appeal.
“I strongly disagree with Judge Yeakel’s opinion barring my office from giving effect to GA-38, which prohibits mask mandates imposed by government entities like school districts,” Paxton wrote. “My Agency is considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision.”
Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary, said that the governor — who has used a wheelchair since being paralyzed in a 1984 accident — “cares deeply about the health and safety of disabled students, just as he does for all Texas students.”
“Nevertheless, he believes the federal district court’s decision to be flawed and is working with the Attorney General’s office to appeal that decision in order to protect Texans’ rights against school districts attempting to impose mask mandates,” Eze said in a statement.
The judge’s ruling comes as children nationwide are now lining up for vaccine doses to protect them from the virus that upended their childhoods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.
School mask mandates continue to be a contentious issue, with some disputes moving from school board meetings to courtrooms. A handful of GOP-led states, including Florida, Arizona and Iowa, passed similar bans on mandates. The CDC, meanwhile, has recommended that schools require students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear masks.
In Texas, at least 45 school districts across the state were forced to temporarily shut down in the first weeks of the academic year due to COVID-19 cases, according to the Texas Education Agency. The shutdowns affected about 42,000 students.
While COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Texas have declined in recent weeks, the share of those fully vaccinated in the state, 53.8%, still trails the national average of 58.5%, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
The Biden administration alerted Texas in September that it was opening a civil rights investigation into Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates. The Justice Department filed a statement of interest arguing that Abbott’s order would harm students with disabilities.
“The serious adverse consequences on students with certain disabilities is readily foreseeable,” the department wrote. “Some parents of children at heightened COVID-19 risk will likely keep their children at home — even though the children could safely attend school if mask protocols could be put in place.”
A recent survey of 1,200 registered voters from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that 58% of voters support mask requirements for students and staff in public schools, while 39% oppose the rules on face coverings.
Yeakel’s ruling prohibits Paxton from imposing fines up to $1,000 for schools or districts that have mask mandates. It also prevents the state attorney general from withholding educational funding or suing districts requiring students to wear masks for safety. The Republican has sued at least 15 school districts that have imposed mask mandates and defied Abbott’s order.
Disability Rights Texas cheered the news. Kym Davis Rogers, an attorney with the group, said in a statement that “Texas is not above federal law.”
“We are thankful that school districts can now take the steps necessary to protect these students,” she said. “No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won’t have to.”