An appeals court on Wednesday halted a federal court ruling that had prevented Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in state schools, allowing the ban to remain in effect.
In a 15-page decision, the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans granted a request from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to adjourn the decision of U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. The Court of Appeal on 24 November had already granted administrative stay, while issuing a formal decision on Paxton’s request.
The decision of the 5th Circuit on Wednesday means that Yeakel’s decision will be put on hold while the case goes through the appeal process. The Court of Appeal will ultimately make a final decision on his ruling.
The federal judge had ruled on 10 Nov. that the ban ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott through a decree violated a federal law that protects disabled students’ access to public education.
The nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights Texas, which had brought the case that prompted Yeakel’s decision, argued that Abbott’s ban prohibited accommodation for children with disabilities who were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
In awarding the stay, the Court of Appeal said Paxton was likely to win in his appeal, the students represented by Disability Rights Texas are unlikely to have the power to challenge the ban, and the students and group had not exhausted all remedies under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that makes free public education available to eligible U.S. children with disabilities.
The Court of Appeal also challenged the students’ claim that they could face health risks without a mask mandate. The appellate court said Yeakel’s decision did not take into account the various accommodation options available to students, including classroom distance, plexiglass, vaccinations and voluntary masking that could ensure a safer learning environment, “regardless of (Abbott’s) ban on local mask mandates.”
“The risks of incurring COVID-19 for these plaintiffs are certainly real, but the alleged harm to the plaintiffs from the enforcement of (the executive order) is at this point much more abstract,” the appellate court said.
In a tweet, Paxton said the state’s ban on mask mandates “is LAW and was upheld by the 5th Court of Appeals.”
Dustin Rynders, an attorney for disability rights in Texas, said his organization was disappointed with the appellate court’s decision.
“Our case has always been about giving students with disabilities with a high risk of COVID the opportunity to go to school in person as safely as possible. As new COVID variants threaten to make a better situation worse again, it is imperative that Schools have the option of requiring masks in the classroom, campus or district as needed to protect vulnerable students, Rynders said in a statement.
In September, the US Department of Education opened an investigation into whether Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in Texas schools violates the rights of students with disabilities.
Paxton has sued several school districts that have demanded masks for students and staff, while other school districts and towns and counties have sued Abbott for his executive order. That Texas Supreme Court has not yet made a final decision in the case.