Judge upholds civil rights of Texas students with disabilities with ruling against Gov. Abbott’s mask-mandate ban

A federal judge earlier this month ruled that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates for public schools violates Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and barred Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing the executive order.

In August, 14 elementary school students with disabilities were plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott and TEA Commission Mike Morath filed by Disability Rights Texas. The lawsuit claimed the prohibition of mask mandates in public and charter schools violate the ADA.

The plaintiffs range in age from 7 to 11 and were ineligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the time of the lawsuit filing. People with disabilities are at a higher risk of being infected with the virus and experiencing severe complications, even death. Masks are essential to lower their risk of getting sick from COVID-19, especially around other students in close, indoor settings like a school.

Students with disabilities have the right to access a free, appropriate public education because of Section 504 of the ADA, the federal law that prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities and applies to any agency, including a school district, which receives federal money.

One plaintiff in the lawsuit, eight-year-old J.R., has ADHD, a growth hormone deficiency, and moderate to severe asthma. Her mother worries that J.R., who needs in-person instruction to succeed in school, is at greater risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and even death if she gets the virus.

“Having to make a choice between my daughter’s education or her life—what kind of choice is that?” J.R.’s mother says. “My child has the right to an education and to be safe at school. I shouldn’t have to choose.”

In response to the lawsuit when filed this summer, a spokesperson for Gov. Abbott said Abbott cares about disabled students and, “Since his accident that left him paralyzed, the Governor has worked throughout his career to protect the rights of all those with disabilities in Texas.”

In his ruling on the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel sided with the students and their claim that the ban on mask mandates would impede their civil rights under the ADA. “Plaintiffs here are at higher risk of contracting COVID that their non-impaired peers. But because GA-38 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 nondisabled peers. 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 court concludes that GA-38 violates the ADA and Section 504.2.”

In response to the ruling, Paxton tweeted that “my agency is considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision.” At this time, no appeal has been filed.