The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Bureau is investigating whether the nationwide ban on universal masking in Tennessee schools discriminates against students who are at increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
Tennessee is one of five states the office is investigating, including Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah.
“The department has heard from parents across the country – especially parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions – how government bans on universal indoor masking endanger their children and prevent them from gaining equal access to personal learning.” US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a press release.
“It is simply unacceptable that heads of state should put politics above the health and education of the students they have sworn an oath on. The department will fight to protect every student’s right to safe access to personal learning and to protect the rights of local educators to issue guidelines that will allow all students to return to the classroom safely this fall. ”
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The investigation comes just over a week after Cardona criticized Governor Bill Lee’s order requiring counties to allow parents to opt out of mask mandates.
Cardona sent a letter to Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Aug. 17 expressing concern that state measures could limit the ability of individual school districts to design and implement a safe personal learning environment.
Lee enacted Executive Order 84 on Aug. 16 in response to pressure from conservative lawmakers and some parents arguing that masking obligations violate their personal choice and freedom and that of their children.
Lee has confessed to his decision, saying that the decision whether children should wear masks to school is best left to parents.
The state’s two largest school districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, continue to enforce mask requirements, and since Lee’s order, other counties have also introduced mask requirements as COVID-19 cases increase in schools across the state.
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Two lawsuits were filed in federal court late last week contesting Lee’s order.
Two Shelby County families claim the executive order is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Greyson Schwaigert, a 13-year-old student in Collierville who is immunocompromised and has a school-recognized disability, and ST, an 11-year-old student in Germantown who also has a school-recognized disability.
“Not only are the children at school healthy children, there are also children at risk. When you hear things like 1% of children are going to die or those children have health problems, this is my child,” said Brittany Schwaigert, Greyson’s mother who represents him together with his father Ryan Schwaigert in a suit. “My child has health problems.”
The second lawsuit comes on behalf of the Shelby County government, which argues that with the rampant Delta variant, more and more students must be quarantined until the majority of students can be vaccinated or until the masking is uniformly adopted.
Families question the governor’s order:Governor Bill Lee’s mask opt-out violates federal disability law, Shelby County’s accomplice, alleges the lawsuit
Shelby County files lawsuit:The Shelby County government is suing Governor Bill Lee over school masks
The Citizenship Bureau on Monday sent letters to state school principals outlining how bans on universal indoor masking are preventing school districts from implementing health and safety guidelines necessary to keep students safe from exposure to COVID-19 protect, so the press release.
The federal government has not investigated any other state with universal school masking bans such as Florida, Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are currently not being enforced due to court orders or other state measures for clearance.
Both the Tennessee Department of Education and the governor’s office did not immediately comment when they were reached by email on Monday.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Reporter Laura Testino contributed to this story.
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Meghan Mangrum reports on education for the USA TODAY Network – Tennessee. Contact them at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.