By JUAN A. LOZANO
HOUSTON (AP) — An appeals court on Wednesday halted a federal judge’s order that had stopped Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in the state’s schools, allowing the prohibition to remain in effect.
In a 15-page ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans granted a request by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to stay the ruling by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. The appeals court on Nov. 24 had already granted an administrative stay while it issued a formal ruling on Paxton’s request.
The 5th Circuit’s ruling on Wednesday means Yeakel’s decision will be on hold while the case goes through the appeals process. The appeals court will ultimately issue a final ruling on his order.
The federal judge had ruled on Nov. 10 that the ban ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott through an executive order violated a federal law protecting disabled students’ access to public education.
The nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights Texas, which had filed the lawsuit that prompted Yeakel’s ruling, argued Abbott’s ban prohibited accommodations for disabled children particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
In granting the stay, the appeals court said that Paxton would likely win in his appeal, the students represented by Disability Rights Texas likely do not have standing to challenge the ban and the students and the group had not exhausted all remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that makes available a free public education to eligible U.S. children with disabilities.
The appeals court also challenged the claim by the students that they could face health risks without a mask mandate. The appeals court said Yeakel’s ruling did not consider the various accommodations available to the students, including class spacing, plexiglass, vaccinations and voluntary masking, that could ensure a safer learning environment, “regardless of (Abbott’s) prohibition of local mask mandates.”
“The risks of contracting COVID-19 for these plaintiffs are certainly real, but the alleged injury to plaintiffs from the enforcement of (the executive order) is, at this point, much more abstract,” the appeals court said.
In a tweet, Paxton said the state’s ban on mask mandates “is THE LAW and was affirmed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Dustin Rynders, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, said his organization was disappointed by the appeals court’s ruling.
“Our suit has always been about allowing students with disabilities at high risk of COVID to attend schools in person as safely as possible. As new COVID variants threaten to make an improving situation worse again, it is imperative schools have the option of requiring masks in the class, campus or district as needed to protect vulnerable students,” Rynders said in a statement.
The U.S. Department of Education in September opened an investigation into whether Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in Texas schools was violating the rights of disabled students.
Paxton has sued several school districts who have required masks for students and staff while other school districts and cities and counties have sued Abbott over his executive order. The Texas Supreme Court has yet to issue a definitive ruling on the matter.