The Biden administration is cracking down on five states that have prohibited school districts from implementing indoor mask mandates.
The Department of Education announced Monday that it would open civil rights investigations in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah to learn whether statewide prohibitions on indoor mask mandates discriminate against students with disabilities who are vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from "safely accessing in-person education."
"The Department has heard from parents from across the country – particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions – about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally," said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a statement.
"It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve. The Department will fight to protect every student's right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall," he added.
Republican governors in the five states mentioned, as well as those in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona, have issued executive orders prohibiting local authorities, including school boards, from instituting universal mask requirements for K-12 students. School districts in these states have pushed back against the policy, issuing legal challenges that have prevented some of these orders from taking effect.
In Florida, for example, a circuit judge in Leon County on Friday blocked Gov. Ron DeSantis' order requiring schools to allow parents to opt out of mask requirements for their children. Nearly 60 school districts in Texas have challenged Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates in court. Similar challenges were made in Arkansas and Arizona and the prohibitions on mask mandates in those states have since been blocked either by courts or other state actions.
The Department of Education sent letters to the five states where it is opening civil rights investigations. The letters state in part that the department's Office for Civil Rights is concerned that bans on mask mandates in school districts "may be preventing schools … 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 education department is not investigating states where bans on universal mask requirements were blocked.
"The investigations will explore each state's compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), which is a federal law that protects students with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability," the department said Monday.
"The investigations will also explore whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems and institutions," the department added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all K-12 students and faculty returning for in-person education this fall wear face masks while indoors. As schools reopen nationwide fierce debate has erupted between the districts, which want to follow CDC guidelines, and parents who believe forcing their children to wear masks is harmful.
Proponents of mask-wearing insist that scientific evidence suggests masks are effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19 with virtually no harm to mask wearers, but a study accepted for publication in the International Research Journal of Public Health suggests mask mandates have little to no effect on COVID-19 case growth, raising questions about the benefits of mask mandates for school children.