The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH)

Ed officials question civil rights, mask bans

- By Collin Binkley

The Education Department on Monday opened civil rights investigat­ions into five Republican-led states that have banned or limited mask requiremen­ts in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimina­tion against students with disabiliti­es or health conditions.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights announced the investigat­ions in letters to education chiefs in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. Those states have issued varying prohibitio­ns on mask requiremen­ts, which the office says could prevent some students from safely attending school.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona accused the states of “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,” Cardona said in a statement.

It marks a sharp escalation in the Biden administra­tion’s battle with Republican states that say mask-wearing 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 states under investigat­ion have adopted a range of policies that outlaw or curb mask mandates. A state law in Iowa forbids school boards from mandating mask wearing. In Tennessee, school mask mandates are permitted, but a recent executive order from Gov. Bill Lee allows families to opt out of them.

Those policies conflict with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom. The CDC issued the guidance in light of the rapid spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

In announcing the investigat­ions, the department said it will examine whether the policies violate a federal law protecting students with disabiliti­es. Under that law, students with disabiliti­es must be given access to a “free appropriat­e public education” alongside their peers without disabiliti­es.

But states that outlaw mask mandates could be preventing schools from taking necessary steps to protect students with disabiliti­es or medical conditions, the department said.

In its letters, the department said it’s concerned that the states “may be preventing schools from making individual­ized assessment­s about mask use so that students with disabiliti­es can attend school and participat­e in school activities in person.”

Education Department investigat­ions often end with voluntary agreements that remedy alleged violations. But if the agency concludes that states violated civil rights laws, it could issue sanctions as severe as a loss of federal education funding.

The inquiries were launched at the department’s discretion and not in response to complaints from parents. But Cardona said he has heard from families who are concerned that state mask policies could put their children at risk.

Some Republican­s quickly denounced the investigat­ions. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said individual­s should be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves.

“Iowa was able to reopen schools safely and responsibl­y over a year ago. President Biden and his team know this, yet they’ve decided to pick a political fight with a handful of governors to distract from his own failures,” Reynolds said in a statement.

A spokespers­on for Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said that, “until every American citizen is safely out of Afghanista­n, President Biden shouldn’t spend a single second harassing states like Oklahoma for protecting parents’ rights to make health decisions for their kids.”

 ??  ??
 ?? BRITTAINY NEWMAN — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks to press after a visit to P.S. 5Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Aug. 17in New York.
BRITTAINY NEWMAN — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks to press after a visit to P.S. 5Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Aug. 17in New York.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States