Department of Education Opens Investigation of Texas Schools Over Mask Mandate Ban

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said Tuesday it is investigating to determine whether bans on mask mandates in Texas schools are negatively impacting students with disabilities.

A letter dated Tuesday that was addressed to Mike Morah, the commissioner of education with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), notified the TEA the OCR was opening its investigation to look into whether the agency "may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities" as a result of a statewide policy that bans mask mandates in schools amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The letter was signed by Suzanne Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. A copy of the letter was shared by The Houston Chronicle.

According to the Chronicle, Texas has now joined five other states in facing federal inquiries regarding its rules for mask mandates.

Texas Education Agency investigation mask mandate
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights on Tuesday announced it was opening an investigation into the Texas Education Agency and the impact of its mask mandate ban on students with disabilities. Above, children wearing face masks walk outside Condit Elementary School in Bellaire outside Houston, Texas, on December 16, 2020. FRANCOIS PICARD/AFP via Getty Images

Goldberg's letter noted students' return to classrooms for in-person instruction for the fall 2021 semester as the U.S. continued battling the pandemic. While some states have implemented mask mandates for students, teachers and school staff members, the TEA has enforced an executive order signed earlier this year by Texas Governor Greg Abbott that prevents school districts from requiring members of school communities to wear masks.

The TEA last week reiterated guidance it issued in August indicating its continued enforcement of Abbott's executive order.

"Per GA-38, school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask," the TEA's updated guidance said. The agency added that while mask mandates were not allowed, schools cannot prevent students or staff members from wearing masks if they choose to do so.

In the OCR's letter, Goldberg acknowledged data that shows "children with some underlying medical conditions, including those with certain disabilities, are at higher risk than other children for experiencing severe illness from COVID-19."

The letter said there was concern that the ban on mask mandates upheld by the TEA "may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19."

The OCR noted the launch of its investigation "in no way implies that OCR has decided whether there has been a violation" of federal laws protecting students with disabilities and said the OCR will be contacting the TEA within the next week to gather information needed to move forward with its investigation.

Newsweek reached out to the Texas Education Agency for comment and will update this article with any response.