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Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

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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

Updated 15 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Mix-and-matching gains momentum — Boosters overtake first doses in U.S. — Pfizer to vaccinate Brazilian cityPanel endorses J&J booster.
  2. Health: Age is still a huge coronavirus risk factor — Unvaccinated 11x more likely to die from COVID — 5x more police officers died from COVID than guns.
  3. Politics: Over 30 states limited public health powers — Pope Francis calls on companies to release vaccine patents — Melbourne, "world's most locked-down city," to lift stay-at-home orders.
  4. Education: Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states — LA extends deadline for school employee vaccinations — Parent sues Wisconsin school district after child tests positive.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Linh Ta, author of Des Moines
Oct 18, 2021 - Axios Des Moines

Iowa schools grapple with staff shortages

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It's the middle of the year, but staff shortages are still hampering Iowa schools' from performing their daily operations at 100%.

  • And this year's politicized debates about classrooms aren't helping with morale and retaining workers, said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association.

Why it matters: Staff shortages, especially in classrooms, hurt student learning. Teachers and teacher aides don't have time for individualized lesson plans and they're managing larger class sizes.

John Frank, author of Denver
Oct 18, 2021 - Axios Denver

Meet the candidates: Denver school board at-large seat

From left to right, Marla Benavides, Jane Shirley, Scott Esserman, Nicky Yollick, Vernon Jones Jr. Photos courtesy of campaigns

The state's largest school district is holding elections in four of nine districts, our education reporting partner Chalkbeat writes.

Let's meet the at-large candidates in the order they will appear on Denver residents' ballots.

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