The U.S. Department of Education opened civil rights investigations Monday into five states that barred school districts from requiring masks, warning students with disabilities could be at risk, as Republican state officials clash with the Biden administration and some parents and local school leaders over mask-wearing amid an uptick in Covid-19 cases.
DOE’s Office for Civil Rights launched probes in five Republican-controlled states with either outright bans or tight restrictions on school district mask mandates: Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.
The department said it’s investigating whether these rules discriminate against children with disabilities by making it harder for local school officials to protect students who face an extra risk from Covid-19 due to underlying health conditions.
In letters to all five states, the Office for Civil Rights called itself a “neutral factfinder” and said it hasn’t necessarily concluded any violations of federal law took place.
Forbes has reached out to the education departments under investigation for comment.
In a statement, the Utah State Board of Education said it thinks the Office of Civil Rights has “unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur,” because local officials in the state can still propose mask mandates, though county politicians have the power to overrule them (schools in Grand County and Salt Lake City currently require masks).
Molly Spearman — South Carolina’s superintendent of education — has publicly questioned a state law that blocks mask mandates. Spearman echoed this criticism in a statement to Forbes Monday, noting she’s “repeatedly implored the legislature to reconsider [the law] and allow local school boards to make decisions affecting the health and well-being of the students they serve.”
What To Watch For
After the DOE Office for Civil Rights opens a probe, it sometimes resolves allegations by brokering an agreement with the target of its investigation, according to the office’s internal policies. It can also refer allegations to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution, and the Associated Press notes it can revoke federal funding in some cases, though Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona appeared to rule out pulling funding from local schools in an interview earlier this month because “those who suffer are the students.”
The Biden administration has chided states that banned mask mandates in the past. Cardona told reporters earlier this month his department was weighing civil rights investigations in some states, and when Florida threatened to defund the salaries of school superintendents whose districts violated a state mask mandate ban, Cardona said districts can fill in the gap with federal Covid-19 relief funds.
“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 in a statement Monday.
DOE did not launch probes into Florida, Texas or several other states with bans on school mask mandates because those policies are on hold due to legal action. Judges blocked mask mandate bans in Florida and Arkansas this month, and Texas said it wouldn’t enforce its ban amid a raft of legal challenges. Still, the department said it will “continue to closely monitor those states” and could open investigations if their bans are reinstated.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged universal mask-wearing in schools — even among vaccinated students and staff. This recommendation was driven by a surge in Covid-19 cases due to the virus’ more contagious delta variant, which the CDC warns vaccinated people can still transmit, and the fact that children under the age of 12 still aren’t eligible for coronavirus vaccines. But mask mandates and other health restrictions have drawn political controversy, and several Republican-controlled states have imposed laws or executive orders preventing school districts from requiring masks on their own, often arguing mask-wearing should be left to the discretion of individual families. These policies set the stage for state-level battles: Parents and local officials have filed lawsuits in several states, sometimes arguing that bans on mask mandates discriminate against students with disabilities who face an elevated risk from the coronavirus, and some local school districts have imposed their own mask-wearing policies in defiance of state rules.