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Texas schools can require masks again after a judge overrules state's ban

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A federal judge has blocked an order by the Texas governor that banned mask mandates in public schools. The judge said the governor's order puts children with disabilities at risk. NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The plaintiffs in this case are seven disabled children 12 years and under who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Federal Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin ruled that banning masks in Texas schools violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. And he issued a permanent injunction against Governor Greg Abbott's order. He said the child plaintiffs are being denied the benefits of in-person learning. He also said the state government failed to present any evidence that requiring masks fundamentally alters educational programs. Kym Davis Rogers is one of the attorneys who sued Governor Abbott and the Texas Education Agency on behalf of Disability Rights Texas.

KYM DAVIS ROGERS: All of our plaintiffs have disabilities that put them at a higher risk for severe consequences from COVID. And the accommodations that provides them the most protection is the use of masks. But Governor Abbott's executive order prohibited schools from requiring the use of masks.

BURNETT: The judge pointed out that since in-person classes resumed this semester in Texas, more than 200,000 kids tested positive for COVID. And at least 45 school districts temporarily shut down. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had already sued 15 school districts that openly disobeyed Abbott's order. He argued that it's a parent's decision, not the schools, whether their child should be forced to wear a mask. Paxton tweeted last night that he strongly disagrees with the Yeakel's order barring him from suing any other schools. And his office is considering all legal avenues to challenge the decision. It's expected to be swiftly appealed to the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Again, Attorney Rogers.

ROGERS: But in the meantime, we have an injunction that allows school districts to implement the accommodations to protect students with disabilities.

BURNETT: Seven other states, mostly in the South and Southwest, have stopped school districts from requiring students to don face masks. Legal fights have broken out all over. So far, five other federal courts, like the judge in Austin, have found that prohibiting masking in schools violates the ADA. In Florida, a state appeals court found in favor of Governor Ron DeSantis' ban on school mask mandates. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has weighed in, with the Justice Department and the Education Department supporting lawsuits challenging bans on school mask requirements.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBERST AND BUCHNER'S "MOVING ROOMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.