Aug 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Education Department probing 5 states over mask mandate bans

Photo of Miguel Cardona wearing an LGBTQ flag pin on his suit

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The Education Department said Monday that it launched investigations into five GOP-led states that banned mask mandates in schools.

Driving the news: In letters to education chiefs in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, the department's Office for Civil Rights said the bans could discriminate against students with disabilities or underlying medical conditions.

  • The letter marks an escalation in the Biden administration's standoff with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal decision and that parents should choose for their children.

Details: The five states have prohibited schools from requiring masks for students and staff, contradicting guidance from the CDC, which has advised universal mask-wearing in classrooms.

  • The investigation will focus on whether the policies "may be preventing schools from making individualized assessments about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person, consistent with their right to receive a free appropriate public education and to be free from discrimination based on their disability," Suzanne Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in the letters.

Between the lines: If the states are found to have discriminated against students with disabilities, the Biden administration could issue sanctions that include loss of federal funding.

  • If an agreement cannot be reached between the state and federal governments, "OCR has the authority to take further steps to ensure that a recipient of federal funds complies with its anti-discrimination obligations, including by initiating an enforcement hearing process in front of an administrative law judge in the Department of Education or by referring the matter to the Department of Justice for enforcement," a Department of Education official told Axios.

What they're saying: "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."

The big picture: The Biden administration has repeatedly butted heads with Republican governors who have banned universal mandates, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

  • As of now, the department is not launching probes in states where mask mandate bans have been struck down by courts or are not enforced, such as in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona.
  • The agency said it will closely monitor those states.
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