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Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating five states for prohibiting masks in school

Aug. 30, 2021
Letters sent to officials in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah, state that prohibitions of indoor masking may prevent schools from carrying out health and safety policies.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened investigations in five states to explore whether statewide prohibitions on indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities.

The investigation is looking at whether restrictions imposed on masks in those states put students with disabilities at heightened risk for severe illness from Covid-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.

The department has sent letters to chief state school officers of IowaOklahomaSouth CarolinaTennessee, and Utah, outlining how prohibitions of universal indoor masking prevent school districts from carrying out health and safety policies that protect students from exposure to Covid-19, including those with underlying medical conditions related to their disability, the department announced in a news release.

"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," says U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. "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 department officials are concerned that mask restrictions imposed by states on schools and school districts "may be preventing 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," the letter states.

The policies in those states are at odds with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has recommended universal mask wearing for students and teachers in classrooms.

The department's investigation has the support of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

Forbidding schools from imposing a mask mandate "threatens the safety of our schools and students and stands to undo all of the tremendous progress we’ve made toward opening school buildings for safe and equitable in-person instruction, says NEA President Becky Pringle. "Prohibiting mask mandates flies in the face of science, public health, and common sense."

The education department investigations will look at each state's compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law that protects students with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability. Section 504 guarantees qualified students with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education in elementary and secondary school, commonly referred to as FAPE.

This includes the right of students with disabilities to receive their education in the regular educational environment, alongside their peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs.

The investigations also examine whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems and institutions.

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