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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.

Go deeper

Oct 26, 2021 - Health

Alabama governor orders state agencies to fight federal vaccine mandate

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. Photo: Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday signed an executive order directing state agencies to not enforce federal coronavirus vaccine mandates, and instead cooperate with the state's attorney general to sue the Biden administration over the requirements.

The big picture: No government entity shall impose any agreement demanding that an employee get vaccinated, the Republican governor's executive order says. It adds that state employees will not be required to present vaccination proof to receive any sort of government service or to enter a government building.

21 hours ago - Health

Louisiana lifts mask mandate except for some schools

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. Photor: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Louisiana's statewide mask mandate is lifting for all settings except for some schools starting on Wednesday, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) announced.

The big picture: The requirement has been in place since early August as the Delta variant surged across the state. Edwards tweeted Tuesday there had been a "sustained improvement across the state in new cases, test positivity & hospitalizations."

Tina Reed, author of Vitals
Oct 26, 2021 - Health

FDA panel endorses Pfizer vaccines for 5-to-11-year-olds

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Members of the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine expert panel Tuesday endorsed a two-dose series of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5–11. The final vote was 17 members in favor, with one member abstaining.

Why it matters: While not binding, the decision is a long-awaited step toward getting COVID vaccines in the arms of some of the youngest Americans potentially in time to get many fully vaccinated in advance of the holiday season.

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