Federal judge blocks Texas Gov. Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools

AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge ruled Wednesday night that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that bans schools from imposing mask mandates cannot be enforced because it violates federal law by putting students with disabilities at greater risk.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel also blocked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from bringing legal action against school districts that require students, teachers and staff to wear face coverings as a pandemic safety measure.

Yeakel’s injunction also blocked state officials from imposing fines or withholding state money from districts with mask mandates.

ExploreComplete coverage: Coronavirus in Georgia

Paxton — who has filed lawsuits to overturn mask mandates in 15 school districts and who has threatened similar action against dozens more — is expected to appeal the ruling.

Ruling in favor of seven students with various disabilities and medical conditions, Yeakel said Abbott’s order — issued July 29 and known as GA-38 — violates the Americans With Disabilities Act by denying the students the opportunity to participate equally in school.

The evidence, Yeakel wrote, shows that wearing masks can decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19 — a particularly useful strategy for children with disabilities who can be at higher risk of contracting the respiratory disease and from suffering more severe symptoms.

“Because GA-38 precludes mask requirements in schools, (students with disabilities) are either forced out of in-person learning altogether or must take on unnecessarily greater health and safety risks than their nondisabled peers,” Yeakel wrote.

ExploreFrom August: Angry parent rips mask off teacher’s face, superintendent says

Tom Melsheimer, a Dallas lawyer who represented the students and their families, praised the ruling.

“Going forward, school districts all over the state will be free to follow sound medical science and common sense to protect the most vulnerable among us. Who can reasonably object to such a result?” Melsheimer said.

Yeakel’s injunction blocked enforcement of Abbott’s executive order only as it pertained to schools. The governor’s ban on mask mandates imposed by city and county governments or public health officials remains in place.

In addition to finding violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Yeakel said Abbott’s order ran afoul of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, and the American Rescue Plan Act that was signed into law earlier this year.

ExploreFrom August: GOP governors, school districts battle over mask mandates

The rescue plan provided almost $121 billion to help schools return safely to in-person instruction amid the continuing pandemic, including $11 billion allocated to schools in Texas — giving local officials the authority to determine how that money should be spent to address health and safety needs.

State actions that restrict that discretion are not allowed, 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,” he wrote.