Federal judge overturns Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates in Texas schools

Federal judge overturns Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates in Texas schools
Greg Abbott speaking at FreePac, hosted by FreedomWorks, in Phoenix, Arizona in 2012, Gage Skidmore
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A federal judge late Wednesday overturned Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order prohibiting mask mandates in the state's public schools, arguing the ban violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"The spread of Covid-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs," U.S. Judge Lee Yeakel of the Western District of Texas, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in his 29-page ruling. "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 noted that since the majority of Texas public schools began in-person classes for the 2021-2022 school year in August, more than 211,000 students have tested positive for Covid-19 and "at least 45 districts in Texas have temporarily shut down due to Covid-19 outbreaks among students and staff."

"Because [Abbott's order] precludes mask requirements in schools, plaintiffs are either forced out of in-person learning altogether or must take on unnecessarily greater health and safety risks than their non-disabled peers," he 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 judge's decision came in response to a lawsuit filed in August by Disability Rights Texas (DRTx), which said in a statement Wednesday that it is "thrilled that the district court confirmed that Governor Abbott's executive order prohibiting school districts from requiring masks violates the rights of students with disabilities."

Texas Attorney Ken Paxton, a Republican, is now barred from enforcing the order, which entailed a fine of up to $1,000 for public entities that attempted to mandate mask-wearing to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which is killing an average of 85 people per day in the state. Thousands of Texas children have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus.

Last week, Texas children between the ages of five and 11 began receiving coronavirus vaccines after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for emergency use in young kids. In October, Abbott signed an executive order barring Texas entities from implementing coronavirus vaccine mandates.

Paxton signaled Wednesday evening that he intends to appeal Yeakel's mask-mandate ruling, which came after several Texas counties—including populous Harris County—implemented school and local face-covering requirements in defiance of Abbott's order as the highly contagious Delta variant surged across the state.

Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney at DRTx, said her organization is "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," added Rogers, "and now they won't have to."

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