EducationJudicialFederal Judge Ends Governor Abbott’s Prohibition on School Mask Mandates

Judge Lee Yeakel sided with plaintiffs who claimed that banning mask mandates amounted to discrimination against disabled children.
November 11, 2021
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A federal district judge has ended the state’s prohibition on school mask mandates.

Issuing his final judgment in a lawsuit between seven disabled students and the State of Texas, Judge Lee Yeakel enjoined Governor Greg Abbott’s order forbidding school mask mandates.

GA-38 conflicts with the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and Section 504 because it excludes disabled children from participating in and denies them the benefits of public schools’ programs, services, and activities to which they are entitled,” Yeakel wrote.

On behalf of these children, a group called Disability Rights Texas sued the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the State of Texas on August 17. They claimed that GA-38 prevents them from attending school in person, forcing students with health risks out of the classroom.

Specifically, the group argued that GA-38 violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Without a mask requirement at their schools, the children — whose health conditions ranged from Down syndrome to heart conditions to weakened immune systems — could arguably be at heightened risk for COVID-19.

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Federal relief was also at issue. Congress disbursed billions of COVID-19 relief to public schools in three packages, two under the Trump administration and one under the Biden administration. The third package, part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), requires schools that accept funding to develop a “plan for the safe return to in-person instruction.”

ARPA does not require schools to impose mask mandates or abide by federal COVID-19 guidance. However, Yeakel said that GA-38 inhibits schools from creating their own health plans.

“When a federal-funding statute expressly gives local authorities discretion over how to spend federal money, any state law that purports to restrict that discretion is preempted,” his opinion reads.

While Yeakel permitted the suit against the state, represented by Attorney General Ken Paxton, he dismissed the suit against the TEA since it does not enforce Abbott’s order. In fact, as Yeakel notes, the TEA has never enforced the mask mandate prohibition.

Federal law requires states to give special education to students with disabilities and lets people sue if these special conditions are denied. Paxton argued that the plaintiffs went through the wrong channels and should have sought relief under this law instead of fighting for the reinstatement of mask mandates.

Yeakel disagreed, drawing a distinction between claims of discrimination and a desire for appropriate education. Since Disability Rights Texas sought relief for discrimination and not the kind of special education guaranteed under federal law, their lawsuit is valid, Yeakel ruled.

“Plaintiffs do not seek the type of special-education services that the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] guarantees. Rather, Plaintiffs seek to allow their public-school districts the discretion to impose mask mandates and provide children with ‘non-discriminatory access to public institutions,’” the judge wrote.

The injunction only applies to school districts, meaning Abbott’s mask mandate ban still applies to other government entities.

Yeakel’s interpretation of ARPA may cleave a fault line between federal and state courts.

A number of lawsuits between school districts and the state have reached the Supreme Court of Texas. While the court hasn’t yet made a final ruling on any of these challenges, it has issued temporary stays, pausing local mask mandates. In opinions that accompany these stays, the Supreme Court has strongly shown a position of favor to Abbott, claiming that gubernatorial oversight should remain the norm while the cases pend.

Yeakel, on the other hand, claims that Congress gave local governments the authority to set health protocols when it disbursed the ARPA money.

Although Abbott first prohibited mask mandates in schools in May — after requiring them statewide not long before — Yeakel’s opinion focuses on Abbott’s order GA-38, which consolidated the May order with some of Abbott’s other coronavirus-related orders.

Abbott’s May order met with some opposition but went largely uncontested in the courts over the summer. Since the beginning of the school year coincided with a rise in cases that peaked in mid-September, school districts around the state defied the prohibition on mask mandates as classrooms opened, leading to various lawsuits between local governments and the state.

Texas data from the beginning of the year to the end of September showed that schools with mask mandates had a COVID-19 positivity rate about one percent lower than schools without mask mandates.

Federal and state numbers also show that children are at the least risk of death from COVID-19 compared to other age groups.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.