Education Department opens civil rights probes into five GOP-led states banning mask mandates

Education Department opens civil rights probes into five GOP-led states banning mask mandates

The Department of Education notified five Republican-led states Monday that it was launching investigations into whether their prohibitions on mask mandates in schools are violating the civil rights of certain students.

The agency's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent letters to top education officials in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, according to the Associated Press. The letters indicate the department will be examining whether the states' bans mask mandates violate the rights of students with disabilities to safely return to in-person learning.

Several high-profile states where the courts are currently curbing enforcement of mask mandate bans weren't on the list, including Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona. The Education Department is reportedly monitoring those states closely to see if anything changes.

The letters cite guidance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that recommends "universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status." Given the rise the infection rates since mid-June, says the letter, "protection provided by consistent and correct masking 'remains essential in school settings.'"

The letters state the department's civil rights office is concerned the states' prohibition on mask requirements 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 policies potentially violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

In a separate statement, Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona flayed the states for playing politics with students' health and education.

"It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve," Cardona said. "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."

President Joe Biden had recently directed the Department of Education to "assess all available tools" for taking action to ensure that states are providing all students with the opportunity to safely participate in full-time, in-person learning.

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