U.S. Opens Civil Rights Probes Over Mask Rules in GOP States
(Bloomberg Government) -- 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 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.
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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.
Denise Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said the civil rights investigations are “welcome news.”
Several states and school districts have adopted vaccine requirements for teachers and staff, but 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 whether 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.
Varying State Responses
Bans on mask mandates come through a variety of paths—by executive order of governors in some cases or passed through state Legislatures in others.
The differences could complicate the federal probe. For example, Utah’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said in a statement that the Education Department “unfairly defined” Utah as banning mask mandates because it’s decided on a county by county basis.
“State law places these decisions at the local level with local health departments and locally elected officials,” she said.
Utah lawmakers banned school districts and colleges from adopting mask mandates, but they allowed county health departments to recommend the requirements. Those recommendations can be overturned by a vote of county governing bodies.
In Salt Lake City, Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued an emergency order requiring masks in K-12 schools after the county council overturned masking mandates on a party-line vote.
In South Carolina, a provision of an appropriations bill banned school districts from using state funds to mandate masks on campus. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman asked state lawmakers to revise the law to let local school boards to decide masking policies, the state Department of Education said in a statement.
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