WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that it is opening civil rights investigations in five states to look into whether bans on mask mandates in schools are discriminatory.
The department’s office of civil rights is launching these investigations in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah.
The probes will explore whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.
The department sent letters to the chief school officers in the affected states Monday, outlining how they say stopping universal masking prevents school districts from implementing health and safety policies that they determine are necessary to protect students from exposure to COVID-19, including those with underlying medical conditions related to their disability.
The letter states that the department is concerned that state mask restrictions on schools, “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 investigations will explore each state's compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), which is a federal law that protects students with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability.
The probes will also explore whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems and institutions.
The department says it has not opened similar investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions.
"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 U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona 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. 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."