Texas’ ban on school mask mandates draws federal investigation for possibly violating the rights of students with disabilities

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The U.S. Education Department announced the inquiry days after the Texas Education Agency quietly updated its guidance to say school districts can’t require masks.

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Despite Texas Gov Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates by local officials, the Richardson Independent School District and many others across the state are requiring masks for students. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The federal government is investigating the Texas Education Agency after deeming that its guidance prohibiting mask mandates in schools last week may be “preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities.”

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights launched the investigation on Tuesday, just days after the TEA quietly updated its public health guidance. On Friday, the state agency said that school districts once again can’t require face coverings, citing that courts are not blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local mask mandates.

In a letter to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, federal officials said the investigation will focus on whether or not students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, which would violate federal law, wrote Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights.

Goldberg wrote that her office is worried that Texas’ mask policy does not allow for “an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

The TEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Education Department has launched similar investigations in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. It had not done so in Texas because the TEA was previously not enforcing the governor’s order while there was ongoing litigation.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/21/texas-schools-mask-mandates-education-department/.

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