The Texas Education Agency’s latest decision to ban mask requirements in schools has sparked a federal investigation for possibly discriminating against students with disabilities who face life-threatening risks when fighting a COVID-19 infection.
The quietly executed move was met with an announcement from the U.S Department of Education, notifying the launching of an investigation that would look into discrimination practices given that the modified guidelines would possibly be “preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities.”
Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said in a statement that school districts should be free to make their own decisions to protect students and staff and that includes “protecting groups of high-risk students so as to provide the free appropriate public education required under federal law.”
The investigation was launched on Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, and in a letter to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, federal officials said the investigation will focus on whether or not students with disabilities who are at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, which would violate federal law.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, both protect students’ right to an education in — what would be considered — the regular educational environment, according to CBS.
Even after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led a crusade against school districts that mandate masks in an attempt to protect schoolchildren -and having filed more than a dozen lawsuits against them- the federal administration had not launched an investigation since the TEA had not previously banned mask requirements.As reported by the Texas Tribune, about a month into this school year, the number of reported coronavirus cases among students is approaching the total from the entire 2020-21 school year. State data on school cases is incomplete and likely an undercount. TEA suppresses some districts’ case counts to protect student privacy, and not all districts report student and staff cases to the state despite agency guidance requiring otherwise.