Yesterday, the Biden administration’s Education Department began a civil rights investigation against five states that have made mask mandates in schools illegal. The Education Department says that governors in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah are putting students with disabilities in an unsafe environment that greatly increases their risk of contracting COVID, which is a plain violation of civil rights and the right to an education under FAPE, otherwise known as the right to a free and appropriate public education.
“Unfortunately, students are ending up not going to school because their parents don’t feel comfortable sending them to school,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told ABC News. “We feel that’s a violation and feel that all students should have access to in-person learning across the country in a manner that’s safe.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended masks for all individuals ages two or older, including teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. According to the CDC, the risk of COVID outbreaks at schools greatly increases without the use of masks, while requiring masks should make school generally safe for everyone, even at-risk individuals.
However, several states have pushed back against this, saying that the choice to wear a mask should not be mandated. Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said that the investigation was unnecessary, arguing the Biden administration has “unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur.”
“State law places these decisions at the local level with local health departments and locally elected officials,” Dickson said in a statement. “We have witnessed the process occurring in several counties and currently Salt Lake City and Grand County School districts have indoor mask mandates in place.”
Other states that have put bans on requiring masks indoors, such as Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona, are not currently being investigated because those bans “are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions.” However, Florida’s Department of Education has withheld funding from two school districts in the state that are requiring masks in school. (The Biden administration has signaled that federal funds can go to districts and schools that are punished monetarily by state governments for mask mandates.)
Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of schools, has voiced her support for the Education Department’s investigation, saying that state’s prohibiting mask mandates, including Oklahoma, are “preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person.”