The Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm announced Monday it has launched investigations in five states to determine whether statewide policies prohibiting school mask mandates is discriminatory against students with disabilities.
The Department’s Office for Civil Rights sent letters to the chief state school officials in five states – Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah – notifying them of the new investigations into whether these state mask restrictions prevent students with disabilities from “safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law.”
Opening this kind of investigation, the department said, “does not imply that OCR has decided whether there has been a violation of a law that OCR enforces.”
Investigations have not yet been opened in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona “because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions,” the agency also noted in its release, adding that “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 in schools or if the current court decisions were to be reversed.”
President Joe Biden instructed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona earlier this month to “assess all available tools” to make sure that governors allow students to safely return to the classroom “without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities.” This includes the “consideration of whether to take steps toward the initiation of possible enforcement actions under applicable laws,” a White House memo stated.
“The Department has heard from parents from across the country – particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions – about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally,” Cardona said in a statement Monday. “It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve. The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”
In the letters to the five states, OCR further indicated that school mask restrictions in those states “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.”