The U.S. Department of Education said Tuesday it is investigating whether the Texas Education Agency’s policy prohibiting school districts from mandating that students and school staff wear masks amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic prevents students with disabilities from safely returning to in-person classes, in violation of federal law.
The investigation letter, which was sent to Texas’ Commissioner of Education Mike Morath from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, notes that students with certain disabilities that have underlying health conditions may have a higher risk of developing severe illness if they catch Covid-19.
The agency said the Texas Education Agency’s ban on mask requirements in schools may prevent schools from “providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities,” and “meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability.”
The Department of Education also said it will focus its investigation into whether the Texas Education Agency is blocking schools from making “individualized assessments” on requiring masks so that students with disabilities could attend in-person classes.
In May, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring government agencies and school districts from instituting mask mandates. The ban is being challenged in court, and due to the ongoing litigation, the Texas Education Agency said earlier this month it would not enforce the order in school districts. However, the agency walked back its decision in its latest guidance released Friday, saying school systems can’t require students and staff to wear masks, since courts have not issued a stay on Abbott’s order while the litigation continues. This prompted the investigation by the Department of Education. In August, the Department of Education opened similar investigations in five other states with mask mandate bans: Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.
The American Civil Liberties Union, along with advocacy groups for disabled people and parents, filed a lawsuit last month against South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, State Attorney General Alan Wilson and State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, claiming that South Carolina’s ban on public schools requiring masks made it more difficult for students with disabilities or health conditions to return to the classroom, since they are more susceptible to severe illness from Covid-19. In response to the lawsuit, South Carolina officials said last week that the ACLU and its clients “have not alleged, and they cannot reasonably or plausibly allege, that Governor McMaster acted with bad faith or gross misconduct.”
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