The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday launched a civil rights investigation into Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools, making Texas the sixth state to face a federal inquiry over mask rules.
The investigation will focus on whether Abbott’s order prevents students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of federal law, Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights wrote in a letter to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath.
The investigation comes after the Texas Education Agency released guidance saying public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in light of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.
Goldberg wrote that the Office for Civil Rights will examine whether TEA “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the individual educational needs of students with disabilities or otherwise enabling discrimination based on disability.”
The department previously opened similar investigations into mask policies in Iowa, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee. But the agency had not done so in Texas because of court orders preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s order. The new TEA guidance changed that, however.
In newly released guidance, the Texas Education Agency says public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A statement released by the agency Friday says Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order banning mask mandates precludes districts from requiring face coverings.
“Per GA-38, school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask. GA-38 addresses government-mandated face coverings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement reads. “Other authority to require protective equipment, including masks, in an employment setting is not necessarily affected by GA-38.”
The agency previously had said it would not enforce the governor’s ban until the issue was resolved in the courts.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued several school districts for imposing mask requirements on students and teachers, and some districts have sued the state over the governor’s order. The lawsuits have produced mixed results with some courts upholding districts’ mask mandates and some siding with the attorney general.
TEA officials on Tuesday did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new guidelines and questions about how the agency would enforce the ban on mask mandates. The agency has not yet clarified what prompted the new guidelines, given that the legal battles regarding the order are ongoing.
Hard to know exactly what motivated this, but “pressure from Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton” would be high on my list of suspects. If I were to advise school districts that currently have mask mandates, as HISD does, or are thinking about imposing one, I would say go right ahead, and keep the mandates you have. This is a toothless threat, and the courts have not yet weighed in on the issue in a meaningful way. We know that having the mask mandates promotes safety, and if that isn’t the highest priority I don’t know what is. Do not waver.
Anyway. The Trib has an explainer about the state of mask mandates and lawsuits around them, but it doesn’t indicate when the legal cases may be having hearings, which admittedly would be a big task to track. The federal lawsuit will have a hearing on October 6, and we may get some clarity out of that. In the meantime, keep the mask mandates. We need them, and (a couple of district court judges aside) no one is stopping school districts from having them. The Trib has more.