Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Mask rules for pupils have sparked disputes across the US
A US judge has overturned a Texas ban on mask mandates in schools, ruling it violated the rights of disabled students to learn during the pandemic.
Judge Lee Yeakel said the ban denied disabled children, who are more likely to face Covid complications, the benefits of in-person learning.
Districts may now set their own rules. Texas' attorney general is looking to challenge Wednesday's decision.
Mask mandates for pupils have sparked similar legal rows across the US.
"Children with certain underlying conditions who contract Covid-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital's intensive-care unit," Judge Yeakel wrote.
He said evidence presented in court showed these children "are being denied the benefits of in-person learning on an equal basis as their peers without disabilities".
The ruling is the culmination of months of legal wrangling between parents and the state after Governor Greg Abbott issued the ban in May, amid a declining Covid caseload.
Mr Abbott and other Republican state officials have argued Covid measures should be a personal choice, not mandated by the government.
Disability Rights Texas (DRT), the advocacy group that filed the lawsuit, said Wednesday's decision showed Texas is not above federal law.
"No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won't have to," DRT attorney Kym Davis Rogers said in a statement.
In a tweet late on Wednesday, Attorney General Ken Paxton said he strongly disagreed with the decision and was "considering all legal avenues to challenge" it.
- Judge blocks Florida governor’s mask mandate ban
- US doctor removed for '$50 mask exemption letters'
- Covid-19: US state quarantines 20,000 pupils
DRT filed the suit in August on behalf of 14 students with disabilities, arguing that enforcement of the law discriminated against them and violated the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Students with disabilities need in-person schooling more than other student groups, but they must be able to receive instruction and services safely," their complaint noted.
Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said DRT chose an effective route to overturn the ban because "the plaintiffs in the case are the most sympathetic plaintiffs one could imagine".
He added that filing a federal suit also helped.
"Federal law is supreme to state law and the federal courts are eager to enforce notions of federal supremacy, whereas state courts have a difficult time deciding whether a governor has adequate power," he said.
But Prof Carpenter noted the decision could have gone either way and a different judge may well have instead called for a requirement that disabled students only attend virtual learning.
"This is a blueprint for action that could occur anywhere there is an anti-mask law in place," he told the BBC.
"Every school district in the country has students with disabilities who are placed at heightened risk of complications from Covid-19, so there's nowhere in the country that this wouldn't in theory apply."
In September, the US Department of Justice issued a statement on the Texas case, noting the ban kept disabled children from attending school as some parents would keep them at home due to Covid-19 risk, "even though the children could safely attend school if mask protocols could be put in place".
Over 3,300 new Covid cases were confirmed as of 9 November, according to government data. Since the school year began in August, there have been a total of over 211,000 confirmed positive cases in public school pupils.
Some of the state's biggest school districts, including Dallas and Austin, had moved forward with mask mandates in defiance of the order.
Texas, the nation's second most-populous state, has seen a downward trend in confirmed virus cases in recent weeks.
A federal civil rights office is currently investigating similar bans in five other states.
This video can not be played