Note: This article was originally published on SpecialEdConnection.com 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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