The Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into five states that have banned mask mandates in schools.
The bans in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah that prohibit schools from requiring masks could discriminate against students with disabilities or health conditions by preventing them from attending in-person classes, according to the department.
Investigations have not been opened in Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona as their bans on universal indoor masking are not being enforced as a result of court orders or state actions.
“However, the Department will continue to closely monitor those states and is prepared to take action if state leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking or if the current court decisions were to be reversed,” the department said in a statement.
Joe Biden previously directed his secretary of education to use “all of his oversight authorities and legal action” against governors that imposed bans on mask mandates.
The department’s Office for Civil Rights wrote to the five chief state school officers on Monday claiming prohibitions of universal indoor masking prevent schools from implementing policies they believe would protect staff and students from Covid-19.
The bans “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 letter said.
The Department’s Office of Civil Rights will investigate whether the states violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees students with disabilities the right to free public education.
They said they would also probe whether there is a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits disability discrimination by public education institutions.
The Education Department’s investigating body claimed to be a neutral factfinder and that opening a civil rights probe did not imply a determination on whether there has been a violation of the law.
That is despite the Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, preempting the outcome of the investigation to say the rights of students needed protection.
“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Mr Cardona said in a statement.
“The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely.”
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