Monday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened investigations in five states, including Tennessee, to 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.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said “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.”
“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,” Cardona continued.
The Office for Civil Rights sent letters Monday to the chief state school officers of Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah.
Those letters outline how prohibitions of universal indoor masking prevent 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.
Investigations have not been opened 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, according to the Department of Education.
The DoE says they will continue to closely monitor those states and is prepared to take action if state leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking or if the current court decisions were to be reversed.
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
Secretary Cardona also sent letters earlier this month to each of the states that are the subject of the direct investigations that were announced Monday.
The letters note that: “The safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators, and that families have confidence that their schools are doing everything possible to keep students healthy.”