Federal judge rules Texas schools can issue mask mandates.

The ruling comes after months of politicized disputes over measures to prevent the spread of Covid in the state.


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Federal judge rules Texas schools can issue mask mandates.

Students wearing their school-required masks wait for their parents outside Lamar Elementary School in San Antonio, in August.Credit…Matthew Busch for The New York Times

Nov. 10, 2021Updated 10:02 p.m. ET

A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in Texas schools violates the rights of students with disabilities, clearing the path for districts in the state to issue their own rules for face coverings, a decision that could affect more than 5 million students.

The ruling comes after months of politicized disputes over measures at the state level opposing mask-wearing policies that had been intended to prevent the spread of Covid. The lawsuit seeking to overturn the mandate, was filed on behalf of several families by students with disabilities, their parents and the organization Disability Rights Texas. It named the governor, the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, and the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath. The governor and some other state officials maintained that protecting against the virus was a matter of personal responsibility.

Judge Lee Yeakel of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas sided with the parents and ruled that the order from the governor violated the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act because it put children with disabilities at risk.

The ruling also prohibited Mr. Paxton, from enforcing the order by Mr. Abbott, who has repeatedly opposed Covid-related mandates.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” Judge Yeakel said. “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.”

The State Supreme Court has repeatedly sided with the governor by allowing his ban to remain in effect.

But the impact of Wednesday’s federal ruling could ripple across the country in similar cases in other states.

In a statement, Mr. Paxton said that he disagreed with the judge’s ruling, adding that his office was “considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision.”

Mr. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday night.

The lawsuit was first filed in August, at the onset of the fall semester. Disability Rights Texas argued that school district leaders should make their own decisions about mask mandates. The school districts, the organization said, should be basing their decisions on the Covid transmission in their area and on the needs of their students.

The order from the governor, Judge Yeakel said, excluded “disabled children from participating in and denies them the benefits of public schools’ programs, services, and activities to which they are entitled.”

Several school districts had altered or undone their mask mandates since Mr. Abbott’s order.

Mr. Paxton sent letters to superintendents of school districts threatening them with “legal action by his office to enforce the governor’s order and protect the rule of law,” if they did not rescind their mask mandates, according to court documents. On Sept. 10, Mr. Paxton filed lawsuits against six school districts, the documents show.

The Justice Department signaled support for the lawsuit against the state in September, saying in a formal statement that “even if their local school districts offered them the option of virtual learning,” the ban still violated the rights of students with disabilities.

The statement showed a willingness by the federal government to intervene in states where governors and other policymakers have opposed mask mandates.

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