CORONAVIRUS

State mask bans face federal civil rights inquiries

Aug 30, 2021, 11:34 AM | Updated: 1:19 pm
Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona answers questions during the daily briefing at the White ...
Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona answers questions during the daily briefing at the White House August 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(AP) — The Education Department announced Monday that it’s investigating five Republican-led states with universal mask bans, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights sent letters to education chiefs in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. Those states have barred schools from requiring masks among students and staff, a move that the department says could prevent some students from safely attending school.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely.”

It marks a sharp escalation in the Biden administration’s battle with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal choice. President Joe Biden last week asked Cardona to explore possible legal action, prompting the department to examine whether the policies could amount to civil rights violations.

The state policies conflict with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom.

If the investigations determine that the state mask bans have discriminated against students with disabilities, it could lead to sanctions including a loss of federal education funding.

The department said it has not opened investigations in other states where mask bans have been overturned by courts or are not being enforced, including in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona. But the agency said it is “closely monitoring” those states and is prepared to take action if necessary.

Sydnee Dickson, Utah’s superintendent of public instruction, responded to the investigation with the following statement:

“While we appreciate OCR’s efforts to protect children, specifically students with disabilities, we think they have 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. 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. Our schools continue to utilize the many health and safety protocols developed and implemented last year to keep our students learning in person.

“We look forward to working with OCR to clarify Utah’s position on the issue. We continue to urge districts and charters to work with their local public health care professionals to continue providing Utah students and public school staff with safe and effective schools.”

KSL TV contributed to this post.

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State mask bans face federal civil rights inquiries