The Biden administration has launched a civil rights investigation into Texas Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottGOP leaders escalate battle against COVID-19 vaccine mandates Lincoln Project files ethics complaint against Abbott Arizona attorney general asks for restraining order to block federal vaccine mandate MORE’s (R) executive order prohibiting school mask mandates, the latest in a series of probes by the Department of Education into whether the statewide bans violate the rights of students with disabilities.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) notified Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath in a letter Tuesday that it was opening a probe into whether “students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education" as a result of the ban on mask requirements.
Suzanne Goldberg, the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, said that the investigation will specifically focus on whether the statewide ban is preventing schools from meeting components of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects students from disability-based discrimination, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits public entities, including educations systems, from discriminating based on disability.
In response to the probe, Abbott's press secretary, Renae Eze, said in a statement to The Hill that the governor "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," she continued. "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," she added.
The Hill has also reached out to Morath's office for comment.
Texas is the seventh state to become the subject of an OCR investigation due to a statewide ban on mask requirements, following similar probes launched into orders issued by Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Florida.
The Texas ban has garnered particular attention due to Abbott’s prolonged legal battles with individual school districts that have sought to impose mask requirements in defiance of his order.
Local districts have defended the mandates as an important step to keep students safe, especially those under the age of 12, who are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, Abbott has continued to argue that masking should be a personal decision made by parents, noting that his executive order does not prohibit people from wearing masks in school, should they decide to do so.
Last month, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Abbott by blocking temporary restraining orders from district courts that had allowed local governments entities to defy the governor’s executive order.
Despite this, local school districts have continued to impose their own mask mandates, prompting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) to file lawsuits earlier this month against six school districts that have repeatedly defied the statewide ban.
“Not only are superintendents across Texas openly violating state law, but they are using district resources — that ought to be used for teacher merit raises or other educational benefits — to defend their unlawful political maneuvering,” Paxton said in a statement at the time.
--Updated at 12:36 p.m.