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Federal judge allows Texas schools to require masks

In in this March 17, 2021 file photo, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott removes his mask before speaking at a news conference on in Dallas.
LM Otero
In in this March 17, 2021 file photo, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott removes his mask before speaking at a news conference on in Dallas.

A federal judge has ordered a halt to Texas' efforts to ban mask mandates in state schools.

U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel ruled in Austin that the ban ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott violated a federal law protecting disabled students' access to public education.

Wednesday's ruling comes as the United States is seeing another upward trend of coronavirus cases in many states. The Texas ruling could have implications for other states with similar bans in place.

In early August — just days after Abbott issued an executive order imposing the ban — the nonprofit advocacy group Disabled Rights Texas filed suit against the state and top officials, arguing the measure prohibited accommodations for disabled children who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

Yeakel spoke directly to that segment of students in his ruling.

"The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs," he wrote. "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."

Abbott, Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Texas Educational Agency and its commissioner, Mike Morath, were all named as defendants in the suit.

Yeakel also noted in the ruling that more than 211,000 Texas students had tested positive for COVID-19 between the beginning of the 2021-22 school year and Oct. 31 At least 45 districts in the state have temporarily shut down because of outbreaks among students and staff.

Under Yeakel's ruling, Paxton will be prohibited from imposing fines, withholding educational funding or suing school districts that require students to wear masks as a safety measure. Paxton had already sued 15 school districts to overturn local mask mandates those districts had imposed.

"We are thankful that school districts can now take the steps necessary to protect these students," said Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney at Disability Rights Texas in a statement posted to the organization's website. "No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won't have to."

Paxton's office tweeted Wednesday night that he would pursue an appeal to Yeakel's decision.

"I strongly disagree with Judge Yeakel's opinion barring my office from giving effect to GA-38, which prohibits mask mandates imposed by government entities like school districts," Paxton wrote. "My Agency is considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision."

Abbott's office did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment on the ruling.

In August, Abbott called on Texas' Republican-led legislature to reinforce his ban on mask mandates in schools with a law. But lawmakers did not pass any such legislation.

Wednesday's ruling in Texas could have implications in other states — including Arizona, Iowa, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah — which have also banned mask mandates for students.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendsuniversal indoor masking for all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.