WASHINGTON – The Department of Education has investigated five states whose bans on universal mask requirements in schools may violate civil rights laws protecting students with disabilities, federal officials said Monday.
The chief of the department’s civil rights department wrote to state education officers in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah, telling them that the department’s civil rights bureau would decide whether the bans would restrict access to students who were federally mandated Discrimination on the basis of discrimination are protected via their disabilities and are entitled to free adequate public education.
The investigation is delivering on the Biden government’s promise to harness the power of the federal government – including civil rights investigations and legal action – to intervene in states where governors and other policymakers have opposed mask mandates in public schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone in schools wear masks regardless of vaccination status.
In letters to heads of state, the assistant secretary of state for civil rights said the department would investigate whether the bans “could prevent schools from complying with their legal obligation not to discriminate on the basis of disability, and provide equal educational opportunities for disabled students who are disabled Offer”. if there is an increased risk of serious illness from Covid-19. “
The department said it has not opened an investigation in Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona because these states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not being enforced in schools due to litigation or other state measures.
On Friday, a Florida court rejected an attempt by Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and other state officials to prevent mask requirements in schools.
Sydnee Dickson, Utah’s superintendent for public instructions, said in a statement Monday that while she appreciates the federal department’s efforts to protect children, she believes “they have wrongly defined Utah as a non-masking state “.
She said that state law leaves the decision to local officials and that several counties have implemented it. She noted that in March the CDC surveyed a district in Utah as an example of elementary schools reopening with no significant outbreaks.
Education officials from Oklahoma and South Carolina have signaled that they oppose mask bans in their states.
Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s public education director, said in a statement that the state Department of Education planned to cooperate in the investigation. Oklahoma’s Mask Requirement Act “prevents schools from fulfilling their statutory duty to protect and allow all students to study in person more safely,” she said.
In a statement, the South Carolina Department of Education said the state’s superintendent “has repeatedly pleaded lawmakers to reconsider a recently passed mask mandate reservation” that has been challenged in court.
The department said it was “particularly sensitive to the effects of the law on South Carolina’s most vulnerable students”.
Brian Symmes, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster’s communications director, wrote in a statement that the state education department’s investigation was “another attempt by the Biden administration to impose a radical liberal agenda on states and people who disagree with them . ”
He continued, “Under South Carolina law, anyone who wishes to wear a mask – in school or elsewhere – can do so, but the governor will not ignore parents’ fundamental right to make health decisions for their children.”
Understand US vaccination and mask requirements
- Vaccination rules. On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people aged 16 and over, paving the way for increased mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies are increasingly demanding vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally permissible and have been confirmed in legal challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in public places indoors in areas with outbreaks, reversing the guidelines offered in May. See where the CDC guidelines would apply and where states have implemented their own mask guidelines. The battle over masks is controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and Universities. More than 400 colleges and universities require a vaccination against Covid-19. Almost all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
- schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for educational staff. A survey published in August found that many American parents of school-age children are against mandatory vaccines for students, but are more supportive of masking requirements for students, teachers and staff who do not have a vaccination.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and large health systems require their employees to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, due to rising case numbers due to the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their workforce.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required by workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances, and other indoor situations, though enforcement doesn’t begin until September 13th. Teachers and other educational workers in the city’s vast school system are required to have at least one vaccine dose by September 27, with no weekly testing option. City hospital staff must also be vaccinated or have weekly tests. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would make coronavirus vaccinations compulsory for the country’s 1.3 million active soldiers “by mid-September at the latest. President Biden announced that all civil federal employees would need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular tests, social distancing, mask requirements and travel restrictions.
Officials from the education departments of Iowa and Tennessee confirmed they received and verified their letters.
Earlier this month, President Biden announced that he had directed his Education Minister, Miguel A. Cardona, to use the agency’s broad powers to intervene in states where governors had blocked masked mandates.
Dr. Cardona said he was particularly concerned about bans in locations where the delta variant of the coronavirus has been driving cases up. He said he had heard from desperate parents who fear sending their immunocompromised and medically vulnerable children to schools that do not have universal masking.
This month, parents of children with disabilities sued Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas over his ban on masking in public schools, arguing that his order prevented their medically vulnerable children from attending safe school.
“The department has heard from parents around the country – especially parents of students with disabilities and underlying medical conditions – how government bans on universal indoor masking put their children at risk,” said Dr. Cardona in a statement announcing the investigation.
Millions of public school children are qualifying for special education services, which often require hands-on instruction and other services and therapies. And getting back to the classrooms was a priority for the population after experiencing severe academic and social setbacks due to school closings during the pandemic.
In particular, the department will investigate whether government bans violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act 1973, which includes “the right of students with disabilities to receive their education in the regular educational setting with their peers without disabilities to the greatest possible extent”. tailored to your needs, ”says the department.
It also investigates whether statewide bans violate Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act 1990, which prohibits public institutions from discriminating against disabilities.
The ministry said the investigations did not indicate a violation that could result in a state losing federal funds. Most investigations lead to settlement agreements between the agency and the state.
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