US opens civil rights probes over mask rules in GOP-led states

Andrew Kreighbaum and Courtney Rozen
Bloomberg News

Washington – The Education Department opened civil rights investigations in five Republican-led states asking whether bans on school mask mandates discriminate against students with disabilities at severe risk from contracting COVID-19.

The agency’s Office for Civil Rights sent letters to state education leaders in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah on Monday notifying them of the reviews.

“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 announcing the investigations. “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.”

Cardona and President Joe Biden have prioritized reopening of K-12 schools for in-person instruction this fall after campuses shut down last year to halt the spread of the virus. A surge in cases driven by the delta variant and political battles over measures like universal masking indoors threaten to upend that goal, however, if transmission in schools disrupts classes again.

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school Aug, 17 for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas.

In response to state leaders blocking mask requirements this month, the White House issued a memorandum directing Cardona to use all available tools to ensure students can access full-time, in-person learning.

The investigations don’t include Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona, where state leaders have attempted to impose bans on local mask mandates but have been stopped by court orders. The Education Department said it will watch whether those states seek to further prevent school masking requirements and whether those court decisions are overturned.

Parents in South Carolina, Florida and Texas have filed complaints in federal court challenging the state bans on school mask mandates. The lawsuits in all three states allege the policies violate federal disability protections.

While several states and school districts have adopted vaccine requirements for teachers and staff, children under age 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination in the U.S.

The Office for Civil Rights will act as a neutral fact finder in the investigations, the letters told state education leaders. The reviews will look into bans on mask mandates violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects students with disabilities against discrimination.