Federal Judge Rules Texas Mask Mandate Ban Violates ADA

November 11, 2021 by Reece Nations
Federal Judge Rules Texas Mask Mandate Ban Violates ADA
Students wearing face masks work on computers at Tibbals Elementary School in Murphy, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge overturned Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates in public schools on Wednesday, freeing local officials to set their own masking orders once again.

U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel ruled Texas officials’ efforts to prevent local masking ordinances violated the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Yeakel cited data from the American Academy of Pediatrics in his ruling that posits children with certain chronic conditions are more likely to have a diagnosis of severe acute biological effects from COVID-19 infections that require hospital or intensive care unit admission.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” Yeakel wrote in his decision. “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 would go on to cite the growing number of Texas public school students who have tested positive for COVID-19 since the majority of schools opened for in-person classes in August. Since the start of the school year in Texas, 211,788 students have tested positive for the virus, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, leading to at least 45 school districts in the state to temporarily shut down in response to COVID-19 outbreaks among students and staff.

The case was brought before the court after Disability Rights Texas—an advocacy agency for Texans with disabilities—filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 14 child plaintiffs with pro bono legal partners Winston & Strawn against Abbott and Mike Morath, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency. The group’s complaint contended the order was discriminatory and violated the ADA as well as Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.

“Under Abbott’s order, parents of these children face an untenable choice: educate their children at school and expose them to potential severe illness, long COVID, and even death or keep their children home, where they will receive a fraction of their education in one of the least integrated settings available with limited to no exposure to non-disabled peers,” Tom Melsheimer, an attorney from Winston & Strawn, said in a written statement. “Either outcome is a violation of students’ rights under the ADA and Section 504, and both are wholly avoidable.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton expanded litigation efforts in September against school districts that defied the ban on mask mandates, TWN previously reported. Paxton sued 15 Texas school districts over their implementation of masking guidance while contending that it was unlawful for local jurisdictions to challenge an executive order issued under the governor’s emergency powers during a disaster declaration.

The issue of local jurisdictions’ authority to impose masking guidance had been bounced back and forth among the courts since the order went into effect in May. Abbott’s order was allowed to continue in August after the Supreme Court of Texas issued a ruling that voided temporary restraining orders issued by separate District Court judges, TWN previously reported.

“We are thankful that school districts can now take the steps necessary to protect these students.,” Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney at Disability Rights Texas, said in a written 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.” 

Reece can be reached at [email protected].

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