NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – The federal government is now investigating whether the ban on school mask mandates in Texas violates the rights of students with disabilities.

(credit: CBS 11 News)

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The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened the inquiry Tuesday to specifically look into public health guidance from the Texas Education Agency, which was recently updated to say districts can’t require students or staff to wear a mask. Federal officials are worried that prevents children with disabilities from safely returning to in-person education since they’re at a greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Disability Rights Texas has already filed a lawsuit in federal court, making a similar argument. The organization represents 14 young students who have disabilities.

“To have the federal government join in and to look into what our state is doing, which is putting our kids in harm’s way, it makes me feel very validated and relieved and I hope that it does make a big difference in our case,” said Riki Graves, a mother of one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

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Graves’ 7-year-old daughter Juliana is a heart transplant recipient. She is homeschooling her and her son right now.

“I have to go on the advice of her doctors, and her transplant team has told me that it’s not safe for her to be there at school,” Graves said. “It’s really frustrating.”

Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney at Disability Rights Texas and the lead attorney on the lawsuit, released this statement on the federal probe:

“We welcome the Department of Education to this fight for the safety of Texas students with disabilities. Last Friday the Texas Education Agency released reckless new ‘health’ guidance that reinforces the ban on mask requirements in school. TEA shares culpability for the dangerous situation in Texas schools. OCR should fully investigate TEA and take every action necessary until students with disabilities are able to safely attend Texas schools. Along with TEA’s guidance, the Governor’s order and the Attorney General’s enforcement and intimidation campaign are creating an impossible situation for students with disabilities in Texas schools. Without other options, many students are attending unsafe schools that aren’t able to implement basic accommodations that would allow them to attend more safely. Other families are keeping their children home to keep them safe, even though they need access to in person learning. None of this is necessary. Mask wearing requirements worked all last school year to minimize spread of the virus in Texas schools, and the Delta variant makes the policy more necessary now than before. Mask requirements in a pandemic are reasonable accommodations. Our state’s refusal to allow mask requirements is blatantly discriminatory to children with high risk health conditions who can’t yet be vaccinated. Our federal case is still set for trial on October 6th. We look forward to demonstrating the need for a permanent injunction on the enforcement of this discriminatory and dangerous ban on mask requirements.”

The investigation is the latest development in the ongoing battle between districts across the state and the governor, whose executive order prohibits mask mandates.

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The TEA referred any comment on the inquiry to Governor Abbott’s office. His press secretary, Renae Eze, released this statement:

“Governor Abbott cares deeply about the health and safety of disabled students, as he does for all Texas students. Since his accident that left him paralyzed, the Governor has worked throughout his career to protect the rights of all those with disabilities in Texas. It seems that the federal government misunderstands the executive order—it doesn’t prohibit anyone in schools from wearing masks, it only prohibits the mandating of masks. Any Texan from any background has the right and ability to wear a mask if they choose – and parents are the best decision-makers for their children.”

Caroline Vandergriff