On Wednesday evening, a U.S. District Court judge in Austin blocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates at schools. According to the ruling from Judge Lee Yeakel, Abbott’s actions violate federal law because they present a special danger to students who are at high risk due to preexisting medical conditions. Because of this, refusing to allow schools to institute mask mandates, according to Yeakel, is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
"The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs. Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital's intensive-care unit."
Yeakel makes a series of very simple, and easily defensible, points in his ruling:
- Students with special health concerns are at higher risk.
- Schools say that mask mandates will help protect those students in a way that voluntary mask use will not.
- Evidence supports the idea that near-universal mask-wearing helps slow the spread of COVID-19.
- Forcing kids at higher risk to participate in classrooms without a mask mandate puts them at higher risk than their peers.
If this ruling holds up, it could affect not just mask mandates in Texas, but in multiple states were Republican governors, legislatures, and attorneys general have attempted to prevent schools from requiring masks.
Throughout the entire pandemic, it seems that Republican governors have been scrambling to one-up each other on how willing they are to endanger their citizens. A whole series of steps have become de rigueur—especially for any Republican who believes she or he has a chance of bumping Trump from the slot on the 2024 GOP playbill. That’s included stripping power from local officials to institute their own social distancing rules, taking away authority from state and county health officials, punishing businesses that seek to keep employees safe, punishing employees who seek to avoid unsafe workplaces, fining schools that attempt to keep students safe, and making it illegal for anyone—private or public—to require vaccination.
The number of players in this game is almost as long as the list of GOP governors, and there has been some outstandingly awful behavior from governors such as South Dakota’s Kristi Noem and Tennessee’s Bill Lee. However, few governors have dueled for the title of Most Willing To Kill Citizens for Political Points the way that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have gone at it.
DeSantis often grabs the headline for his habit of treating each downturn in the rate of new cases as an excuse to claim that his policies have worked—while ignoring Florida’s top 10 status in both the rate of cases and of deaths. But Abbott has matched his Florida rival almost step for step when it comes to punishing everyone with good intentions.
For both Abbott and DeSantis, it hasn’t been enough not to impose a statewide mask mandate. Both have issued executive orders that prohibit local authorities from instituting such mandates, both have issued orders to prohibit such mandates in most government facilities, and both have threatened to fine or punish schools that violate the rules. In Florida, the DeSantis-appointed Board of Education has already moved to withhold funds from schools that require masks—not just endangering students, but directly threatening their education. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had already launched prosecutions against a number of school districts, but both Paxton and Abbott were set back on their spurs when dozens of districts rebelled against the ban.
Texas is almost certain to appeal Yeakel’s ruling, especially since Paxton is, in almost every measurable way, worse than Abbott when it comes to reflexive attacks on reasonable policies. However, for the moment, not only can schools in Texas feel safer while making kids safer, there are implications that go way beyond one state and way beyond schools.
If a ban on mask mandates is a violation of the ADA, then this is true not just in Texas, but in Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, and every other Republican-controlled state that has moved to block these mandates. And if this is true for schools, it must be true for everywhere else as well, in public and private space.
Abbott’s own executive order makes it clear that mask mandates have value, because he exempts hospitals, nursing homes, and jails from the ban on such mandates. This is easily recognized as giving value to such mandates.
With a ruling that touches on the ADA in hand, this is certain to become a fight that will be joined by multiple Republican attorneys general. Because it seems dead simple to extend this ruling to support the idea that cities, counties, government facilities, and private businesses of all types cannot be banned from issuing mask mandates.