The Department of Education announced Monday that it is investigating five Republican-led states that have banned mask requirements in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health problems.
The department’s Office for Civil Rights sent letters to the heads of education in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.
Those states have banned schools from requiring masks among all students and staff, a move the department says could prevent some students from safely attending school.
The guideline contradicts the CDC and is due to the fact that children under 12 years of age are not yet among the vaccination groups.
“It is simply unacceptable for state leaders to put politics above the health and education of the students they are sworn to serve,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “The department will fight to protect the right of all students to safely access in-person learning.”
The announcement marks a sharp escalation in the Biden administration’s battle with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal choice. President Joe Biden asked Cardona last week to explore possible legal action, prompting the department to examine whether the policies could amount to civil rights violations.
State policies conflict with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends the use of face masks for students and teachers in the classroom.
If investigations find that state mask bans have discriminated against students with disabilities, it could lead to penalties, including loss of federal education funding.
The department said it has not opened investigations in other states where courts have overturned mask bans or are not being enforced, including in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona. But the agency said it is “closely monitoring” those states and is prepared to take action if necessary.
Investigations aim to determine whether state mask bans amount to a violation of students’ right to a free public education. The department is expressing concern that, in areas with high COVID-19 transmissions, the bans could discriminate against students who are at increased risk for serious illnesses.
The Texas Supreme Court has dismissed Ken Paxton’s and Greg Abbott’s arguments not to allow mask mandates in the state’s public schools.
The department is launching investigations at its own discretion and not in response to parental complaints, but Cardona said families have raised concerns that the mask ban could put children with disabilities or health problems at risk. .