A federal judge in Texas ruled Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order banning mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, setting the stage for school districts in the state to decide whether they want to impose mask rules.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel wrote in a 29-page ruling that the ADA, 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 Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing the governor's order, which imposes a fine of up to $1,000 for any entity that issues a mask mandate.
Paxton's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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The lawsuit was filed in August by families of students with disabilities and an advocacy group called Disability Rights Texas. The suit argued that Abbott's ban denies children with pre-existing conditions equal access to a safe education.
"Governor Abbott's executive order clearly violates federal law, and Attorney General Paxton's enforcement of the order against school districts is now stopped," said Kym Davis Rogers, an attorney for the group, in a statement.
"As the court found, Texas is not above federal law, and state officials cannot prevent school districts from providing accommodations to students who are especially vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19. We are thankful that school districts can now take the steps necessary to protect these students. No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won't have to."
The majority of public schools in Texas began in-person classes in August. More than 210,000 students have tested positive for Covid-19, according to state data.
The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the Texas case in late September, arguing Abbott's executive order would harm students with disabilities.
"The serious adverse consequences on students with certain disabilities is readily foreseeable," the Justice Department wrote. "Some parents of children at heightened COVID-19 risk will likely keep their children at home—even though the children could safely attend school if mask protocols could be put in place."