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Disability Rights Group Files First Federal Lawsuit Against Abbott Over Ban On Mask Mandates

Gabriel C. Pérez

Disability Rights Texas has filed a federal lawsuit against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for his executive order prohibiting schools, cities and counties from mandating masks in schools.

In a complaint filed on behalf of 14 students, Disability Rights Texas argues the ban violates protections for people with disabilities under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The nonprofit says the students are at particular risk of COVID-19 because they are too young to get vaccinated.

The lawsuit argues schools aren't able to accommodate students with disabilities under the governor's order, which puts them in violation of the ADA. It also says the lack of masking requirements violates federal protections that ensure a child's access to public education.

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal district court in Travis County, also names Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. Disability Rights Texas said it's the first federal suit targeting the governor's order.

Robert Winterode, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas, told KUT the families essentially have to choose between education and the health of their children. While virtual learning is being offered at some schools, he said, that may be unfeasible for students in special education classes.

"It really is discriminating against these students who, many of them, cannot be in person," he said, adding that some plaintiffs have conditions like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, which more or less require in-person instruction.

As COVID cases have surged, Winterode said, families have found alternative special education classes full because of a spike in demand. So, he said, the parents have sent their kids off to school, hoping for the best.

"They're basically risking their lives," he said. "And the governor is putting these parents in this really impossible situation: You either choose between your child's health and your child's life, or you choose their education."

Just days into the school year, Winterode said, one of the guardians of a child represented in the lawsuit has tested positive for COVID-19 and another plaintiff was tested for the virus after becoming sick. He said the family had not received results of the test back yet.

The nonprofit is suing on behalf of students and families in 10 counties — Bell, Bexar, Dallas, Fort Bend, Hays, Hidalgo, Medina, Tarrant, Travis and Williamson.

An initial court date has not yet been scheduled, Winterode said.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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