A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in Texas schools violates the rights of students with disabilities, clearing the path for districts in the state to issue their own rules for face coverings.
The ruling comes after months of politicized disputes over measures at the state level opposing mask-wearing policies that had been intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Earlier this year, Abbott had prohibited local governments and state agencies from mandating vaccines, saying that protection against the virus should be a matter of personal responsibility, not forced by a government edict. In response, advocacy group Disability Rights Texas filed a lawsuit on behalf of several families of students with disabilities. They stated that the defendants — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency Mike Morath, and the Texas Education Agency — had put students with disabilities at risk through their complete erasure of mask mandates.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel wrote in a 29-page ruling Wednesday that the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law enacted in 1990, supersedes Abbott’s July order banning facial coverings in schools.
“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs. 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,” Yeakel said. “This includes children with conditions including Down syndrome, organ transplants, lung conditions, heart conditions, and weakened immune systems.”
Yeakel added, “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.”
The ruling also prohibits the Texas Attorney General from enforcing the governor’s order, which imposes a fine of up to $1,000 for any entity that issues a mask mandate.