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The Education Department announced on Monday that had launched civil rights investigations into five Republican-led states that banned schools from imposing mask mandates, claiming their stance could discriminate against students with disabilities or health problems.
‘It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,’ said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
‘The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely.’
The move marks an escalation in the battle between the Biden administration and Republican governors who say mask use should be a matter of personal choice.
President Biden announced this month that his administration would use its oversight powers to challenge states the banned masked mandates in schools and on Monday Education Secretary Miguel Cardona launched investigations into five states
Five states were told they were under investigation. Several others, which are not implementing their bans, will be monitored, according to the Education Department
Protesters have called for mask mandates in Salt Lake City where a Republican governor has banned such measures across the state. The policy is now under investigation
But other protesters celebrated a decision in Salt Lake County where the council overturned a mandate for children up to the age of 12, illustrating the stark political divide
The investigations will examine whether vulnerable children are deterred from attending school because of the absence of COVID-19 protection strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says face coverings are among the most effective tools to prevent the spread of the virus and recommends masking in schools.
‘National data also show that children with some underlying medical conditions, including those with certain disabilities, are at higher risk than other children for experiencing severe illness from COVID-19,’ acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg wrote to leaders in those five states.
‘At the same time, extensive evidence supports the universal use of masks over the nose and mouth to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.’
The letters spelled out that the states may be preventing schools from meeting their legal obligations to provide education for all.
The states could lose federal funding if they are found to have discriminated against students with disabilities.
Several states such as Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas avoided the probe because they have stopped enforcing bans, either voluntarily of after legal challenges.
But the Education Department said it will monitor those states and would take action if schools or districts were prevented from ordering students to mask up.
Mask and vaccine mandates have moved the political frontline as hopes that the U.S. had beaten the pandemic earlier in the summer gave way to concerns about the spread of the Delta variant.
The letter sent to Iowa’s Department of Education explaining that an investigation has been launched into whether the needs of students with disabilities are being met
Whether or not to order children to wear masks in schools has become a political dividing lines, pitting the Biden administration against governors, and parent against parent
Cardona previously said he was particularly concerned by prohibitions in areas where the Delta variant had sent the number of cases soaring.
The issue has taken on added urgency as students prepare to return to school after the summer vacation.
Biden made clear earlier this month that his administration could use its oversight powers to take action against states that have banned mask mandates in schools.
He accused politicians of trying to exploit public safety measures for their own political gain.
‘We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,’ he said.
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds quickly accused him of ‘kowtowing to teaching unions.’
‘I’m doing my job,’ she said. ‘He needs to do his job.’
The situation is more complicated in Utah where state legislators passed a law in May – before the Delta variant was widespread – banning mandates.
In recent days, Governor Spencer Cox reportedly offered to issue an executive order allowing local education officials to require masks.
The divides have triggered a string of lawsuits as school districts take governors to court in Florida, Texas and Arizona, while parents are suing legislative bans in Iowa, South Carolina, and Utah.