Dec 16

Federal court knocks down Texas governor’s ban on mask mandates in K-12 schools

Note: This article was originally published on and was reprinted with the permission of LRP Publications. 

Texas districts can require masks in schools after a federal judge ruled Nov. 10 that the  ban Governor Greg Abbott put in place in Executive Order GA-38 on July 29 violated  the ADA and Section 504. 

In the first ruling of its kind, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin found that  Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton cannot sue districts for implementing mask  mandates because doing so violates federal law. Other courts have issued temporary  restraining orders and preliminary injunctions during the pandemic, but Yeakel is the  first to rule that a state ban on mask mandates violates the ADA and Section 504. 

The lawsuit is just one of many that have been emerging throughout the country  involving claims that bans on mask mandates endanger students with disabilities,  especially those who are medically fragile. The Texas case could have implications for  other states with similar lawsuits, including those in South Carolina, Tennessee, and  Florida. 

Yeakel highlighted in E.T. v. Morath, 121 LRP 37764 (W.D. Tex. 11/10/21), that at least  45 school districts in the state have had to temporarily shut down because of COVID-19  outbreaks since in-person classes began in August. These outbreaks put students with  disabilities especially at risk. 

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health  needs,” Yeakel wrote in his ruling. “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. This includes  children with conditions including, Down syndrome, organ transplants, lung conditions,  heart conditions, and weakened immune systems.” 

Paxton had sent letters threatening school districts that have or have intended to  implement mask requirements with civil suits. He had already sued 15 districts. 

The ruling brings relief to one organization that fights for the rights of students with  disabilities.

“[The Center for Learner Equity] applauds Federal District Court Judge Yeakel’s ruling  striking down Texas’ Executive Order prohibiting mask mandates in schools,” said  Wendy Tucker, senior director of policy at the CLE, in a statement. “As Judge Yeakel  acknowledged in his order, Texas’ prohibition violated the civil rights of the student  plaintiffs, who under the order were either ‘forced out of in-person learning altogether’ or  forced to ‘take on unnecessarily greater health and safety risks than their nondisabled  peers.’ We are thrilled that these Texas students will now be able to safely access their  education, and we hope this court decision is a wake-up call to the other states that  have implemented similar discriminatory prohibitions.” 

The advocacy group that originally filed the lawsuit on behalf of students with disabilities  and their families also celebrated the decision. 

“We are thankful that school districts can now take the steps necessary to protect these  students,” said Kym Davis Rogers, a litigation attorney at Disability Rights Texas, in a  statement. “No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education  or risking their health, and now they won’t have to.” 

At least for now. This may not be the end of the fight in Texas. Indeed, Paxton posted  on Twitter Nov. 10: “I strongly disagree with Judge Yeakel’s opinion barring my office  from giving effect to GA-38,” he said. “My agency is considering all legal avenues to  challenge this decision.” 

Yeakel dismissed the Texas Education Agency and the state education commissioner,  who were also named as defendants in the lawsuit because neither of them had  threatened enforcement of the governor’s executive order. 

Published. November 11, 2021 

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