Biden Administration Launches Civil-Rights Probes against Five States over Mask-Mandate Bans

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 5, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

After President Biden gave the cue to Education Secretary Cardona, the Department of Education has launched civil-rights probes against five Republican-led states that banned mask mandates in public institutions.

“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,” Cardona said in a press release.

OCR will investigate whether the states in question have violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which deal with discrimination.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent letters to education leaders in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Iowa, Tennessee, and Utah. The recipients did not include Florida or Texas, whose governors have been battling school districts in their states over mask requirements for weeks. However, the agency said it is “closely monitoring” the conduct of those states and is prepared to take action against them if warranted.

Last month, Cardona sent a letter to Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis suggesting that any school officials who were penalized or whose salaries were withheld over the state’s ban of mask mandates could be reimbursed with federal funds through the American Rescue Plan.

“Any threat by Florida to withhold salaries from superintendents and school board members who are working to protect students and educators (or to levy other financial penalties) can be addressed using ESSER funds at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts,” Cardona wrote.

Monday’s development comes after President Biden directed Cardona to exercise full oversight authority and potentially pursue litigation against Republican states that prohibit mask requirements.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are 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 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,” the Monday statement added.

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