Erica L. Green and Daniel E. Slotnik
August 30, 2021
WASHINGTON — The Education Department has initiated investigations into five states whose prohibitions on universal mask mandates in schools may run afoul of civil rights laws protecting students with disabilities, federal officials announced Monday.
The department’s civil rights head wrote to state education leaders in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, notifying them that the department’s Office for Civil Rights would determine whether the prohibitions are restricting access for students who are protected under federal law from discrimination based on their disabilities, and are entitled to a free appropriate public education.
The investigations make good on the Biden administration’s promise to use the federal government’s muscle — including civil rights investigations and legal action — to intervene in states where governors and other policymakers have come out against mask mandates in public schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone in schools wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
In letters to state leaders, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights said the department would explore whether the prohibitions “may be preventing schools from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from Covid-19.”
The department said it has not opened investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not being enforced in schools because of litigation or other state action.
On Friday, a Florida court rejected an effort by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and other state officials to prevent mask mandates in schools.
Sydnee Dickson, Utah’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement on Monday that while she appreciated the federal department’s efforts to protect children, she believed “they have unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur.”
She said that the state’s law left the decision up to local officials, and that several counties had implemented them. She noted that the C.D.C., in March, studied a Utah district as an example of how elementary schools had reopened without significant outbreaks.