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GOP bans on school masks draw federal civil rights challenges

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Disability rights advocates are taking on Republican governors who block school mask requirements, launching a slew of federal civil rights lawsuits that could serve as a blueprint for the Biden administration as it weighs legal options to fight the policies.

The legal challenges — filed separately in recent weeks against Texas, Florida and South Carolina — argue that those states‘ bans on universal masking in schools run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws meant to protect children with disabilities.

The GOP bans on school mask mandates were already facing a torrent of lawsuits in state courts. The Texas Supreme Court last week temporarily blocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask policy, for example. And a judge in Arkansas similarly has paused a state law prohibiting mask requirements that was signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he regrets doing so.

But disability rights groups are now charting a separate legal path through the federal courts — which could have sweeping implications if the Biden administration embraces the arguments, as it has already hinted it is considering.

The advocacy groups argue that GOP states forcing schools to adopt mask-optional policies effectively present the parents of children with disabilities a Hobbesian choice: either they risk their child’s health by sending them to school or risk their education by keeping them home.

“The states that have done this are essentially throwing their students with disabilities under the proverbial school bus,” said Susan Mizner, who directs the disability rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU, along with other groups, filed the latest federal lawsuit on Tuesday over South Carolina’s ban on mask mandates from Gov. Henry McMaster.

“Prohibiting schools from requiring universal masking is essentially excluding students with disabilities from school,” Mizner said. “It is outright discrimination.”

The federal lawsuits argue that GOP bans on mask mandates violate the civil rights of students with disabilities under two laws: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires schools receiving federal funds to provide students with disabilities a “free, appropriate, public education.”

“Many kids with disabilities have health situations that make them more vulnerable than........

© Politico

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