A mask ban is blocked for violating rights of students with disabilities

Judge rules that local district leaders should have final say over school mask mandates
By: | November 11, 2021
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Texas’ ban on school mask mandates has been thrown out by a judge who ruled the order violates the rights of students with disabilities to access in-person education equally.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to block mask mandates and the attempted aggressive enforcement by Attorney General Ken Paxton prevent school leaders from complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act and portions of the American Rescue Plan, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled Wednesday.

“Texas has an obligation to make ‘reasonable modifications’ to its ban on school-masking requirements to avoid subjecting students with disabilities to unlawful discrimination,” Yeakel wrote in his ruling on the case filed by Disability Rights Texas and seven students. “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.”

This is the first ruling to find that bans on mask mandates violate the federally-guaranteed rights of students with disabilities.

Abbott’s order also runs afoul of the American Rescue Plan because it interferes with local districts’ use of COVID relief funds to reopen schools to in-person learning, Yeakel wrote. “It cannot be more clear that Congress intends that the local school district receiving ARP Act funds be the ultimate decider of the requirements of the safe return to in-person instruction of students within that district,” the judge ruled, barring the attorney general from any further efforts to enforce the mask ban after Paxton sent threatening letters to multiple school districts.

In support of his ruling, Yeakel noted that pediatric COVID-19 cases have increased dramatically since the 2021-2022 school year began and that the virus poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs such as Down syndrome, organ transplants, lung conditions, heart conditions and weakened immune systems.

“We are thankful that school districts can now take the steps necessary to protect these students,” said Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney at Disability Rights Texas. “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 ban on mask mandates forced disabled students out of in-person learning or forced them to “take on unnecessarily greater health and safety risks than their nondisabled peers,” added Wendy Tucker, senior director of policy for the Center for Learner Equity. “We hope this court decision is a wake-up call to the other states that have implemented similar discriminatory prohibitions.”

The ruling does not appear to be swaying Tennessee’s governor or legislature, who are working to block schools from mandating masks or vaccines. Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he intended to sign a bill approved late last month that would bar schools from mandating masks, except under severe conditions, Tennessean.com reported.

The bill, which would let schools mandate masks for two weeks or less if transmissions climb, also bans vaccine mandates and bars the use of public funds for COVID-19 mandates.

Pennsylvania’s state mask mandate is on shaky ground after it was blocked by an appeals court, CNN reported. Earlier this week, Gov. Tom Wolf said the state’s mask mandate would expire on Jan. 17 and the decision on requiring face coverings in classrooms will revert to local school leaders.

But on Wednesday, a judge ruled that Pennsylvania’s health department did not have the authority to require masks in schools. However, the mandate remained in place Thursday after Wolf’s administration appealed the ruling.

Just next door, Gov. John Carney extended Delaware’s statewide school mask mandate until Feb. 8. ” “It’s our hope that, by February, we will be able to lift the state mask requirement,” Carney said. “Our focus over the coming weeks and months will be on increasing Delaware’s vaccination rates. That’s how we’ll finally move past this pandemic.”

Finally, the union representing teachers in Florida’s Orange County Public Schools responded angrily after the district’s staff mask mandate came to an abrupt end on Wednesday. The union warned the decision could jeopardize the health of employees and students with underlying medical conditions. It also noted that visitors, vendors and parents are still required to wear masks in schools. “OCPS showed extreme disrespect to every teacher, parent and the union by issuing a one-day notice that masks would be optional for employees,” the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association said on Facebook. “It is unclassy, and just one of the many reasons that teachers are resigning.”