Aug 30, 2021 - COVID

U.S. Education Department launches probe into Iowa's mask mandate ban

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds listens on during a meeting in the White House in 2020.

Gov. Kim Reynolds listens during an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board meeting in Washington, D.C., June 26, 2020. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Education is launching an investigation into Iowa and four other GOP-led states that banned mask mandates in schools β€” the first major federal intervention into how states handle COVID mitigation.

Why it matters: The bans may put students, especially those with disabilities or underlying medical conditions, at unnecessary risk and prevent them from accessing in-person classes, the department's Office for Civil Rights argues.

  • Yes, but: Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican governors in the other states under investigation β€” Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah β€” have argued families know what's best for their children, citing personal responsibility.

What's happening: The OCR on Monday sent letters to education chiefs in the five states that have prohibited schools from mandating masks for students and staff, contradicting the CDC's guidance on universal mask-wearing indoors.

  • If Iowa or the other states are found to have discriminated against students with disabilities, they could face sanctions that put their federal education funding at risk.

Zoom in: Des Moines Public Schools officials are "hopeful" the federal government will find a legal path to allow mask mandates, saying it's "unfortunate" that Iowa outlawed the school board's ability to "protect the health and well-being of children in our care," said DMPS spokesperson Phil Roeder.

Of note: Several other states with such measures, including Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona, aren't being investigated at this time because their mask mandate bans aren't being enforced, the agency said.

  • For example, a judge in Florida ruled that school districts can mandate masks despite Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order, saying they're necessary to protect public health.
  • A Council Bluffs mom has filed a similar lawsuit here in Polk County, AP reports.

The big picture: Schools are transforming into political battlegrounds as a power struggle ensues between local, state and federal jurisdictions on what happens in our classrooms.

The bottom line: During this pandemic, the federal government has rarely stepped in to require any COVID mitigation strategies β€” letting states and local entities decide what's best for themselves.

  • This will be the Biden administration's first big intervention in red states that are trying to eschew CDC-recommended guidelines.

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