Bush-appointed federal judge strikes down Texas Gov. Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates

A federal judge on Wednesday overturned Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring schools in the state from imposing a mask mandate for students and staff, claiming the order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, a George W. Bush appointee, barred Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing Abbott’s order after months of legal back-and-forth between the state and parents over whether the governor’s ban was a violation of the ADA, The Texas Tribune reported.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” Yeakel noted. “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 went on to note that Abbott’s order illegally prohibits kids with disabilities from accessing “the benefits of public schools’ programs, services and activities to which they are entitled,” the outlet reported.

In overturning Abbott’s order, schools in the state are now free to make their own rules regarding masks and other COVID-related mandates.

Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group, filed a federal lawsuit against the state and Abbott in August on behalf of families, arguing that the governor’s order denies education to kids who may be at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Paxton, along with Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, were also named in the suit.

In a statement, Kym Davis Rogers, who was representing the organization, said that Texas cannot supersede federal law.

“No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won’t have to,” she noted.

In his order, Abbott said that  “no government entity, including a county, city, school district and public health authority” or “any public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds” would be able to require people to wear masks. Private businesses were exempt from the order.

Several school districts pushed back immediately, including one that changed its student dress code to include masks.

“The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” the Paris Independent School District’s board of trustees wrote in August.

“Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority.”

Abbott’s order is similar to one issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In July, he issued an order that made the wearing of masks optional in public schools, empowering parents to make the decision for their children rather than the school districts.

His order, too, was challenged in court, but has since been upheld and is in force. The state’s largest public school district, Miami-Dade, announced this week that the mask mandate will end there, though officials did not cite DeSantis’ order but rather falling COVID rates.

School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced the decision following a court ruling last week after a judge’s ruling which stated that the Republican governor is within his authority to allow parents to decide for kids whether they want to opt-out of stricter COVID mandates.

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Jon Dougherty

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