The Education Department on Monday announced that its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is investigating five states for their statewide bans on indoor mask mandates that potentially discriminate against students with disabilities who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
The OCR sent letters to chief state school officers in Iowa, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee that allege that the states restrict districts from meeting the accommodations that students with disabilities need to protect them from exposure to COVID-19.
The letter states that OCR is concerned that state mask restrictions on schools and school districts “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.”
Despite a growing amount of school districts defying bans on mask mandates from Republican governors such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), the OCR has not opened similar investigations into both states along with Arkansas or Arizona. The OCR said that it declined to investigate those four states due to the fact that their bans on universal masking at schools “are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions.”
The Education Department, however, said that it will continue to monitor those four states and is ready to take action if state leaders prevent schools from imposing mask mandates or if current court decisions are reversed.
The OCR’s investigation comes after President Biden announced earlier this month that he directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to order his department’s civil rights office to investigate states such as Florida and Texas that are banning school mask mandates.
Both DeSantis’ and Abbott’s bans on school masking requirements have backfired thus far. Their orders are facing a slew of legal challenges, which include federal lawsuits that allege that the bans violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
At least 10 Florida school districts have already defied DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates, despite his threats to cut funding from districts that implement mask requirements. One of these federal lawsuits has been filed in the Southern District of Florida argues that DeSantis’ ban violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The suit includes 27 parents and children and claims that DeSantis “does not have the authority to threaten school districts with loss of funding if they protect their students with disabilities health and rights to be in an integrated learning environment.”
In Texas, Abbott’s order faces a similar federal lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Texas, which claims that his ban violates anti-discrimination law because it prevents them from safely returning to in-person classes.
In a press release issued Monday, Cardona noted that the Education Department has heard complaints from parents nationwide — particularly those who have students with disabilities and underlying medical conditions — over the negative impact that statewide bans on mask mandates have on their child’s education.
“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 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.”
TPM reached out to the Education Department for comment.