The Department of Education opened civil rights investigations into five states that banned mask mandates in schools, asking whether the bans discriminated disabled students.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will investigate whether students at a heightened risk of getting a severe case of coronavirus were discriminated against in the states that imposed mask mandate bans, the agency announced Monday. Department of Education Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg notified Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah officials of the probes.
“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “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.”
Cardona added that parents of disabled students with underlying medical conditions have reached out to the Department of Education requesting that it takes action against the bans.
The agency won’t investigate Texas, Florida and other states where similar bans were blocked by courts. Last week, a Florida judge ruled that local school districts in the state could impose mask mandates, overriding Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order banning such actions.
Goldberg’s letters to the five states indicated the OCR is concerned restrictions on mask mandates prevent 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.”
Cardona previously sent letters to the five states under investigation, urging them to prioritize students’ health and safety, the Department of Education said.
President Joe Biden directed the secretary to assess his options for holding states that have banned mask mandates accountable in an Aug. 18 memorandum.
“Unfortunately, as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said during remarks announcing the memo. “Some are even trying to take power away from local educators by banning masks in school.”
“They’re setting a dangerous tone,” he added.
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