In the latest development in a growing and quickly-developing body of case law, a Texas federal district court ruled that Texas’s ban on masks in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Plaintiffs are children with disabilities who are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 or suffering severe illness from Covid-19. Disability Rights Texas filed suit on their behalf to challenge the Texas Governor’s Executive Order that prohibited school districts from mandating masks. Plaintiffs contend that without universal mask requirements, they would be unable to access in person school, and that the ban impermissibly prohibits schools from imposing mask mandates as a reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities under federal disability laws. Plaintiffs allege that the Order either places children with disabilities in imminent danger or unlawfully forces disabled children out of the public school system.
The court agreed, finding that the statewide ban prevents school districts from satisfying their obligations under the ADA and Section 504. The Order impermissibly prevents school divisions from implementing a mask requirement if a school determines that masks are needed as a reasonable accommodation to provide students with disabilities equal access to a safe, integrated, in-person learning environment. The Court struck the ban, leaving school districts in Texas free to impose universal mask requirements, at least for now. The state quickly appealed the decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
This case follows similar rulings in Iowa and Tennessee. However, in Florida, a judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the state’s mask ban, relying partly on its assertion that disabled children first need to exhaust administrative remedies before seeking relief in court. The federal government has also opened investigations into five states that imposed statewide masks bans on school divisions, on the grounds that such bans discriminate against students with disabilities.
There is sure to be more to come as this body of case law continues to develop.