U.S. Education Department investigating Texas’ ban on mask mandates

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The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Texas’ ban on mask mandates in public schools.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights wrote to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday to inform him of the investigation. The department is examining whether the state agency is preventing districts from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities because of the state’s prohibition on mask mandates.

The investigation “will focus on whether, in light of this policy, students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law,” according to the letter from Suzanne B. Goldberg, the department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights.

The office “is concerned that Texas’s restriction on schools and school districts from putting masking requirements in place may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting school districts from requiring face coverings.

The Texas Education Agency on Friday issued a COVID-19 guidance stating that per Abbott’s executive order school districts “cannot require students or staff to wear a mask.” The agency had previously said Abbott’s order wasn’t being enforced for schools amid ongoing lawsuits, according to The Texas Tribune. That provision isn’t in the latest guidance.

Abbott’s office stressed Wednesday that students can still wear masks if they choose.

“Governor Abbott cares deeply about the health and safety of disabled students, as he does for all Texas students,” spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement. “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. It seems that the federal government misunderstands the executive order—it doesn’t prohibit anyone in schools from wearing masks, it only prohibits the mandating of masks. Any Texan from any background has the right and ability to wear a mask if they choose — and parents are the best decision-makers for their children.”

The Texas Education Agency did not immediately return requests for comment. The Fort Worth school district declined to comment on the investigation.

Abbott’s order has been challenged by school districts, resulting a number of lawsuits making their way through the courts. In the Fort Worth school district, mask mandates aren’t permitted after a temporary injunction was reinstated by an appeals court.

Separately, Disability Rights Texas — representing more than a dozen children — has filed a federal lawsuit arguing Abbott’s order and a Texas Education Agency guidance restricts students with disabilities’ access to public school education and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. That lawsuit is set for a bench trial on Oct. 6. A request for a temporary restraining order by the group was recently denied.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued several school districts, including the Richardson and Sherman school districts, for defying Abbott’s order. He tweeted Tuesday that Sherman was no longer enforcing a mask mandate.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in August it had opened investigations into bans on mask mandates in five states: Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. At the time, the department said it hadn’t begun an investigation in Texas and three other states because their bans on universal indoor masking were not being enforced due to court orders or other state actions..

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