The Education Department on Monday launched civil rights investigations into five states that have barred indoor masking mandates, alleging that the governors are creating an unsafe learning environment for students with disabilities at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
It’s an aggressive new legal strategy from the Biden administration to challenge Republican governors who insist indoor mask mandates don’t work.
ABC NewsU.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks with ABC News about mask mandates in school, on ABC News Live, Aug. 30, 2021.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona discussed the probe on ABC News Live’s “The Breakdown” Monday afternoon, saying the probe is one way to get students back in school in-person.
“We’re advocating for local decision-making with health experts as partners to reopen schools,” Cardona told ABC News Senior National Correspondent Terry Moran. “We know that’s what works, and we have politics getting in the way of things. Unfortunately, students are ending up not going to school because their parents don’t feel comfortable sending them to school. We feel that’s a violation and feel that all students should have access to in-person learning across the country in a manner that’s safe.”
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that schools are generally safe if students and staff universally wear masks. School districts who struggled with COVID-19 outbreaks this year – oftentimes sending thousands of kids home – typically did not require masks.
Cardona said that the probe is not political, saying that people “need to keep the politics out of it,” and focus on students.
“To me, this is about protecting students, protecting our staff. That’s what this is about,” Cardona said. “And the president said use every tool in your toolbox to make sure we’re providing a safe school reopening and that’s what we’re doing.”
Matthew Hatcher/Getty ImagesFace masks sit on a table outside of Schoolcraft Elementary for students and parents to wear when entering the building on the first day of school on Aug. 30, 2021, in Schoolcraft, Mich.
However, there are some GOP governors and local officials who have opposed the administration’s push for masks. Moran pressed Cardona on how he’d respond to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has banned mask mandates in schools in his state.
“I want to work with Governor DeSantis and every other governor to do what’s right for our students,” Cardona said. “The students in Florida are my students too. At the end of the day I’m going to trust medical doctors and health experts who do this for a living to guide our safe school reopening.”
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The investigations focus on Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. The Education Department says it is not including Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona at this time “because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions.”
Top education officials in Oklahoma and South Carolina are voicing support for the Biden administration’s investigation into schools and masks in their states.
Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of schools, says her state’s law prohibiting mask requirements “is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person” in a statement Monday.
John Partipilo/AP, FILEKindergarten teacher Mrs. Amber Updegrove interacts with her students at Warner Arts Magnet Elementary in Nashville, Tenn, on Aug. 20, 2021.
Likewise, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said in a statement that she has repeatedly “implored” the legislature to reconsider the anti-mask law “and allow local school boards to make decisions affecting the health and well-being of the students they serve.”
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Hofmeister and Spearman received letters Monday from Cardona announcing the investigations.
Utah, Iowa and Tennessee also are targeted in the Biden administration probe. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Education Department said it was still reviewing Cardona’s letter. Officials from Iowa and Utah did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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