As counties across Texas issue emergency orders delaying the start of in-person instruction due to the Chinese coronavirus, a civil rights group is calling out discriminatory and unlawful policies included in three counties’ orders. 

Disability Rights Texas sent a letter to both Starr and Cameron counties over language included in their orders that do not allow students with disabilities to return to school for on-campus, in-person instruction until the 2021-2022 school year. The orders leave open the possibility for all other non-disabled students to return to school.

The offending language order reads in part, “To the extent permitted under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (‘IDEA’), and consistent with the procedures required under the federal regulations and state laws implementing IDEA, children with special healthcare needs that are considered medically fragile, as determined by a licensed physician, shall not return to school for on-campus, face-to-face instructions until the 2021-2022 school year.”

A letter sent to Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. and Dr. James W. Castillo, the Cameron County health authority, says, “We must protect the rights of students with disabilities to participate in their education on the same basis as all other students.”

Rosa Torres, the attorney for Disability Rights Texas, told The Monitor, “The language as it is denies these students the same educational opportunities as kids who are not disabled solely on the basis of their disabilities. … When it comes to educational decisions regarding children receiving special education services, the federal law is really clear.”

In response, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera stated the county will be amending the order to remove that language. “I don’t know how that language got in there.” An attorney for Cameron County also stated that he will be amending their respective order.

The ADA and IDEA mandate that children with disabilities receive equal access to public education, and Torres says that decisions are to be made on a case-by-case basis. “It mandates that these decisions are individualized … these decisions are made by a team that includes the parents and a team that is knowledgeable about the needs of that child.”

A letter was also sent to El Paso County, whose public health order includes similar language. Disability Rights Texas stated Thursday afternoon that El Paso County has yet to respond.

David Vasquez

David Vasquez is a native of the Rio Grande Valley, where he was born and raised in Weslaco, TX. He attended The University of Texas at Austin and earned a Bachelor's degree in Government and a minor in English. Following graduation in 2019, David returned home and began writing for Texas Scorecard.