Judge Overturns Texas Ban on Mask Mandates for Schools

By Laura Temme, Esq. on November 16, 2021

Thanks to a federal judge's ruling, schools in Texas can now decide whether to require masks in the classroom.

Parents, school officials, and disability advocates have been fighting for months over how to best protect students from the spread of COVID-19. In May, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting government entities, including Texas public schools, from requiring masks. Several other states followed suit.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation on whether such policies violated the civil rights of students with disabilities. On Wednesday, November 10, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that Gov. Abbott's executive order violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Ban on Mask Mandates Puts Children with Special Needs at Higher Risk

The first challenge to Gov. Abbott's executive order came with a lawsuit filed by advocacy group Disability Rights Texas (DRTx) on behalf of 14 students. DRTx argued that the order put students with disabilities at significant risk, was discriminatory, and violated the ADA and Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits the exclusion of students with disabilities from public educational programs.

Many students with disabilities are at higher risk of serious illness due to COVID-19. Therefore, the plaintiffs argued, they were forced to choose between their health and receiving their education in the regular school environment alongside their peers.

Judge Yeakel agreed, issuing a permanent injunction prohibiting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his office from imposing fines or filing legal action against school districts that require masks.

"Texas has an obligation to make 'reasonable modifications' to its ban on school-masking requirements to avoid subjecting students with disabilities to unlawful discrimination," Judge Yeakel wrote. "A state or local government cannot deny a modification for a person with a disability solely on the basis that it would violate state law."

Kym Davis Rogers, a litigator for DRTx, said of the ruling: "No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won't have to."

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