A federal judge has ruled that Texas' ban on mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to court documents filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
The ruling follows months of clashes between state and local leaders over mask mandates in schools — not just in Texas, but across the country. Similar mandates became the topic of heated debates earlier this year as the delta variant sent COVID-19 case numbers surging once again and schools across the United States began to reopen while many students were still ineligible for a vaccine.
According to the court documents filed Wednesday, Texas independent school districts could choose whether to implement mask mandates for in-person instruction during the 2020-2021 school year. But before the new school year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order which, among other things, prohibited public schools from requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks in their facilities.
"Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities," Abbott had said in May. "We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans' liberty to choose whether or not they mask up."
But as the state grappled amid a nationwide spike in cases and hospitalizations over the summer, some school districts sought out ways around the ban or chose to ignore the governor's order in hopes of curbing the spread of the virus.
Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several Texas families against the governor, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, claiming the spread of the virus was posing "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," the lawsuit said. "This includes children with conditions including, Down syndrome, organ transplants, lung conditions, heart conditions, and weakened immune systems."
The ruling signed by U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel says that "at issue is whether Governor Greg Abbott's Executive Order GA-38 violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990."
"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 court concludes that GA-38 violates the ADA," the ruling said.
Following the judge's decision, the Texas attorney general wrote on Twitter, "I strongly disagree with Judge Yeakel's opinion barring my office from giving effect to GA-38, which prohibits mask mandates imposed by government entities like school districts."
"My agency is considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision," the attorney general wrote.
The ruling also follows a September announcement from the U.S. Education Department's civil rights enforcement arm that it was opening an investigation to determine whether the state's school mask mandate ban was preventing school districts from "considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities."
At the time, the department said in a letter to Morath it was "concerned that Texas's restriction on schools and school districts from putting masking requirements in place may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19."