The Education Department is investigating whether five states are violating the rights of students with disabilities by barring schools from requiring that masks be worn indoors.
The move threatens the states with the possible loss of federal education funding.
The department’s civil rights office said Monday it told the education departments of the five states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — that their prohibitions are keeping schools from taking the steps they think are needed to protect students from COVID-19.
The statewide restrictions “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 letter to the states said.
The letter marks a sharp escalation in the Biden administration’s battle with Republican-led states that say wearing masks should be a personal choice. President Biden last week asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to explore possible legal action, prompting the department to examine whether the policies could amount to civil-rights violations.
However, the move was criticized by the top Republican on the House education committee and the Republican governors of two of the states, who said the left was using the federal government to strip away people of basic freedoms.
“This is what happens when an administration gets in bed with teachers unions and left-wing special interests. It is inappropriate for the Office for Civil Rights to spend taxpayer dollars to intimidate states that are responsive to parents’ needs and balance freedom with public health,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican.
Brian Symmes, spokesman for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, called the move an effort “to force a radical liberal agenda on states and people who disagree with them.”
“Governor McMaster isn’t going to stand for it because he knows that parents — not federal bureaucrats — know what’s best for their children,” Mr. Symmes said. “Under South Carolina law, anybody who wants to wear a mask – in a school setting or elsewhere – is free to do so. But the governor isn’t going to ignore a parent’s fundamental right to make health decisions for their children.”
Carly Atchison, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, said the Biden administration ought to be handling matters within its purview rather than interfere with state sovereignty.
“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,” she said.
But Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, a Republican, agreed with Mr. Cardona that a law passed by the state’s Senate barring local mask mandates would tie the hands of school districts.
“Regrettably, we are not surprised by this civil rights investigation spurred by the passage of a state law prohibiting mask requirements in Oklahoma public schools. That law, Senate Bill 658, is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person. We will fully cooperate with USDE,” she said.
Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said the investigation is unfair because the state leaves the decision on whether to mandate maks to local officials.
The department said that it has not opened investigations against four other states with prohibitions on local mask requirements — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida and Texas — because they are not being enforced because of court orders.
“The Department has heard from parents from across the country – particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions — about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally,” said Mr. Cardona said in a statement.
“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” he said.
The state policies conflict with current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask-wearing for students and teachers in the classroom.
The nation’s largest teachers’ union, meanwhile, hailed the decision.
“Prohibiting mask mandates flies in the face of science, public health, and common sense. The prohibition of mask-wearing mandates prevents school systems from making the best community-minded decisions for their students, including those who are not yet able to be vaccinated or have underlying health conditions,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.
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