The U.S. Education Department on Monday opened a civil rights investigation into five U.S. states that have banned school districts from requiring face masks to combat the spread of the coronavirus, suggesting that the bans discriminated against students with disabilities.
The agency sent letters to officials in South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Oklahoma and Iowa, all states that have barred local districts from mandating masks. The letters alleged that the states may be keeping local school districts from meeting the needs of students with disabilities, often children who are at increased risk of severe illness if they contract the coronavirus.
U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this month said the Education Department would look to use its authority to try to block states from interfering with school districts that want to require masks.
In numerous states, Republican governors critical of the Democratic president have contended that masking should be a personal choice for parents and families, part of the contentious national debate over mask and vaccine mandates, especially as the delta variant of the coronavirus has surged by tens of thousands of new cases in recent weeks.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has argued for universal masking in schools.
Earlier in August, Biden said, "Unfortunately, as you've seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain."
In announcing the investigation, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said, "It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve."
He said his agency "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."
The letters to the five states said the investigation "will focus on whether … students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of federal law."
At least four other states — Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona — have tried to ban local face mask mandates as well, but the mandates there are not currently being enforced because of court orders or other state actions, the Education Department said.