WASHINGTON – The Education Department opened civil rights investigations Monday into five states for policies banning school districts from requiring masks, upping the Biden administration’s battle with Republican governors over pandemic policies for schools.

The letters were sent to officials in Iowa, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee, all of which bar local districts from mandating masks. The letters allege that these states may be preventing districts from meeting the needs of students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness should they contract the coronavirus.

The move follows up on President Joe Biden’s promise earlier this month that the Education Department would use its authority to try to stop states from interfering with school districts that want to require masks. Governors argue that masking should be a personal choice for parents and families, and over the last few weeks, the disputes have reflected the larger national pandemic debate over personal freedom vs. public health.

Virus Outbreak Florida Schools

Students at Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor K-8 Center in Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., wear face masks during a Miami Heat event, Thursday, Aug. 26. Miami-Dade schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district with 340,000 students, began classes Monday with a strict mask mandate. Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Biden has come down squarely on the side of school districts, many in big cities, that say the highly contagious delta variant means all people in school buildings should wear masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks are among the most effective tools to prevent the spread of the virus and recommends universal masking in schools as part of a layered mitigation strategy.

“Unfortunately, as you’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures – that is, children wearing masks in school – into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said earlier this month from the White House.

On Monday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement that his agency has heard complaints from parents across the country. “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.”

The letters to state officials note significant increases in coronavirus cases among children, including those under age 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccination. Children with certain disabilities are at higher risk.

Debates over mask mandates are ranging in many states across the country, including the ramifications for all students. But the impact on children with disabilities offers the federal agency a tool to potentially force states’ hands. Federal law requires that students with disabilities be given a free and appropriate education, and the new investigations are meant to explore whether those rights are being subverted.

The investigation by the Office for Civil Rights “will focus on whether . . . students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law,” the letter to Iowa’s chief education official says. Identical statements were included in the other letters.

The Education Department did not open investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona, all of which have tried to ban these mandates as well, because the mandates there are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions, the agency said.

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