Education Department to probe 5 states with ‘unacceptable’ school mask bans

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Federal education authorities launched five investigations into statewide school mask bans on Monday, ratcheting up the Biden administration's feud with Republican governors as Covid-19 infections disrupt the fall back-to-school season in some communities.

The Department of Education’s civil rights office will review indoor masking prohibitions in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, and examine whether bans in those states violate the rights of students with disabilities.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “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.”

A significant group of states will escape federal scrutiny — at least for now: Authorities said the department’s civil rights office has not opened investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona.

Court orders or other actions have kept those states’ school mask bans from being enforced, the department said. That should allow local schools in those areas to enact mask requirements, though it’s still possible Education Department authorities could pursue similar investigations in those places.

The investigations will hinge on a novel, pandemic-era use of federal civil rights law. In letters to state school authorities whose jurisdictions are now under investigation, federal officials said they’re concerned that restrictions on mask use may keep schools from complying with federal laws that protect disabled students from discrimination.

Such investigations are typically time-consuming affairs, and do not have a pre-ordained outcome.

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