Feds open civil rights probe into states barring school mask mandates

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into states barring school mask mandates to determine whether those rules discriminate against students with disabilities who are at higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19

The Education Department sent letters to the top school officers in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, claiming that prohibitions against mask requirements prevent schools from making a safe environment for students with underlying medical conditions related to a disability. The investigation was announced on what marked the first day of school for many children in the U.S., as the culture war over mask mandates only gets more heated. 

The Office for Civil Rights said they have not opened investigations in Florida, Texas, Arizona or Arkansas because those bans aren’t being enforced, either due to court orders or some other reason. 

“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 Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. “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.”  

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The Department of Education said the investigations will center around whether states are complying with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids entities from excluding people with disabilities from receiving an equal opportunity to receive benefits and services. 

President Biden had written a memo directing Cardona to consider all tools at his disposal within the law to make sure students can learn safely in person. 

Mr. Biden has criticized GOP governors who have taken steps to ban mask requirements, particularly in schools. Earlier this month, he said he finds it “totally counterintuitive” and “disingenuous” that some Republican governors who complain about federal overreach have been pushing to ban mask mandates imposed by local jurisdictions and schools.