The Justice Department signaled its support on Wednesday for the families of children with disabilities in Texas who are suing to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in the state’s schools.
The department filed a formal statement on Wednesday with the federal district court in Austin that is hearing one of the lawsuits, saying that the ban violates the rights of students with disabilities if it prevents the students from safely attending public schools in person, “even if their local school districts offered them the option of virtual learning.”
The move signals a willingness by the federal government to intervene in states where governors and other policymakers have opposed mask mandates, using federal anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Justice Department has often used similar statements of interest to step in to cases involving civil rights.
“Frankly I’m thrilled,” said Juliana Longoria, 38, of San Antonio. Her daughter, Juliana Ramirez, 8, is one of the plaintiffs in a suit against the ban filed in August by the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas. “It gives me a lot more hope that the federal government is serious about protecting our children,” Ms. Longoria said.
Lawsuits against Mr. Abbott’s ban have also been filed in Texas state courts, and have sometimes found initial success, but the State Supreme Court has repeatedly sided with the governor, ruling that he had the authority to impose the ban. The case in which the Justice Department intervened on Wednesday is federal, and is scheduled to go to trial next week.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did the Texas Education Agency or the office of Ken Paxton, the state attorney general.
Mr. Paxton has defended the ban in state court, saying that Texas law gives the governor broad powers to guide the state through emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the Justice Department said in its statement that the civil rights protections afforded by federal anti-discrimination laws applied “even during emergencies.”
Dustin Rynders, a lawyer for Disability Rights Texas, said the department’s position put schools in Texas and beyond on notice that they had an obligation to accommodate people with disabilities, including through the wearing of masks.
“It would be discrimination for a state to prohibit ramps to enter in the school,” Mr. Rynders said. “And for many of our clients, people wearing masks to protect our clients’ health is what is required for our clients to be able to safely enter the school.”
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations. On Sept. 27, a federal appeals panel reversed a decision that paused a mandate that teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
Because masks are not required at her school, Juliana Graves, 7, has not been back to school in Sugar Land this year, according to her mother, Ricki Graves. The Lamar Consolidated Independent School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Juliana has had a heart transplant, and the medication she takes to prevent rejection suppresses her immune system, her mother said. As a result, respiratory infections as simple as the common cold have landed Juliana in the hospital more than a dozen times, Ms. Graves said, adding that she worries that Covid-19 could kill her daughter.
Instead of going to school, Juliana has been receiving four hours a week of instruction from a teacher through homebound school services, Ms. Graves said. Her daughter is repeating first grade, she said, and might now be falling even further behind.
“She’s missing all her social interaction, she’s not able to go to school in person and be with her teachers and have recess and go to lunch,” Ms. Graves said. “It’s hard for her.”