On Wednesday, President Biden and U.S. Education Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona confirmed that the administration would be taking action against the Republican-controlled state governments that have made it impossible for local school districts to set their own rules about mask mandates.
Biden, in an address at the White House on Wednesday, August 18th, said that the decision “isn’t about politics. It’s about keeping our children safe. It’s about taking on the virus together, united. I’ve made it clear that I will stand with those who are trying to do the right thing,” referring to the local governments and school districts who have disregarded state bans and implemented their own mask mandates.
“We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” he added. Biden also noted that American Rescue Plan funding could cover the salaries of the teachers and school boards whose livelihoods are threatened if they enforce mask mandates in violation of the laws of their state, per NBC News.
Biden’s address came alongside a memorandum he sent to the U.S. Department of Education that the department must “use all available tools to ensure that governors and other officials are providing a safe return to in-person learning for the nation’s children.”
Cardona confirmed the DoE would step in, more or less, in a blog post, saying that the DoE will “receive and respond as appropriate to complaints from the public, guardians, and others about students who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures.”
Edweek also reports that the DoE looks prepared to step in in a major way when it comes to keeping kids safe in classrooms. Kids make up a growing share of new COVID-19 cases and more children continue to be hospitalized. Inaction has become harder to justify.
They may use laws on the books that protect the civil rights of children. Specifically, per EdWeek, their right to a free and appropriate public education (otherwise known as FAPE). That legal avenue would allow the feds to bypass state governments and enforce mask mandates in all U.S. schools.
And as mask mandates are unilaterally shut down by Republican politicians who want to make the work of keeping children safe a reelection ploy, that these governors are violating a child’s access to FAPE is likely the Biden administration’s best chance to stop them. Using federal civil rights rules to stop states from banning masks is a legal argument that could work.
In any case, it’s good news that the Biden administration appears finally ready to step in and flex their legal muscles to take care of the millions of kids re-entering school buildings across the country as the academic year begins.
And for places that are defying their governors — like one small district in Texas that added masks to their school dress code to get around Abbott’s executive order banning masks — legal action from the federal government would be helpful, a sign that they won’t have to fight their state governments alone.