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Biden administration opens civil rights investigation into states barring school mask mandates

School board meetings become flashpoint for frustrated parents
School board meetings heat up across country over mask mandates 08:03

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into states barring school mask mandates to determine whether those rules discriminate against students with disabilities who are at higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19

The Education Department sent letters to the top school officers in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, claiming that prohibitions against mask requirements prevent schools from making a safe environment for students with underlying medical conditions related to a disability. The investigation was announced on what marked the first day of school for many children in the U.S., as the culture war over mask mandates only gets more heated. 

The Office for Civil Rights said they have not opened investigations in Florida, Texas, Arizona or Arkansas because those bans aren't being enforced, either due to court orders or some other reason. 

"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," said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. "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."  


The Department of Education said the investigations will center around whether states are complying with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids entities from excluding people with disabilities from receiving an equal opportunity to receive benefits and services. 

"Unfortunately, this is just another attempt by the Biden administration and to force a radical liberal agenda on states and people who disagree with them," said Brian Symmes, communications director for South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, in response to news of the investigation. "Governor McMaster isn't going to stand for it because he knows that parents – not federal bureaucrats – know what's best for their children. Under South Carolina law, anybody who wants to wear a mask – in a school setting or elsewhere – is free to do so, but the governor isn't going to ignore a parent's fundamental right to make health decisions for their children."

Ahead of the official announcement of an investigation, on August 26, Utah Governor Spencer Cox sent a letter to President Biden saying an earlier letter from Cardona expressing concerns with Utah's masking policies in schools was surprising "given Secretary Cardona's enthusiastic approval of Utah's school plan just last month." 

Mr. Biden had written a memo directing Cardona to consider all tools at his disposal within the law to make sure students can learn safely in person. 

Mr. Biden has criticized GOP governors who have taken steps to ban mask requirements, particularly in schools. Earlier this month, he said he finds it "totally counterintuitive" and "disingenuous" that some Republican governors who complain about federal overreach have been pushing to ban mask mandates imposed by local jurisdictions and schools. 

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