Dear Commons Community,
The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened investigations in five states regarding the prohibitions of universal indoor masking.
Chief state school officers in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah received letters yesterday from the OCR questioning the states’ decisions to not mandate masks in schools. The Education Department maintains that mask-mandate bans 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 says that not mandating masks may put students with underlying medical conditions and disabilities at particular risk. As reported by Yahoo News and other media organizations.
“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 said in a statement.
The letter also points out that not mandating masks may prevent the schools “from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”
At the center of the Education Department’s investigation is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The federal law protects students with disabilities from discrimination. Section 504 guarantees qualified students with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education in elementary and secondary school.
The department states that this includes the right of students with disabilities to receive their education in a regular educational environment, alongside peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs. The investigation will also explore Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. That federal law prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems and institutions.
The department has yet to open investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona because masking bans in those states are enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions. However, the Education Department says that it will take action if needed if leaders in those states prevent universal indoor masking in schools.
I give credit to Secretary Cardona and the USDOE for moving forward with these investigations but I am not sure how timely or effective they will be.