Feds target Tenn., other anti-mask states

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State officials learned Monday that Tennessee was one of five states to potentially find itself in hot water for banning indoor masking requirements.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has launched investigations into whether such bans are, in fact, a type of discrimination against children with disabilities since their heightened risk of severe illness from COVID means they can’t safely get an education with the bans in place.

“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,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a press release.

“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,” he said.   

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who has opposed requiring students to wear masks, didn’t comment on the letter Monday.

The agency sent letters Monday to the head public education officials of Tennessee, Iowa, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah, describing how children can be hurt when school systems aren’t allowed to enforce universal indoor masking requirements. (Read Tennessee’s letter here: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/correspondence/other/20210830-tennessee-doe.pdf). 

The letters say that such policies “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 agency hasn’t opened investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona because those states’ bans on universal masking aren’t being enforced as a result of court orders or other factors. 

“Due to these rulings and actions, districts should be able to implement universal indoor masking in schools to protect the health and safety of their students and staff. However, the Department will continue to closely monitor those states and is prepared to take action if state leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking or if the current court decisions were to be reversed,” the letter said.

Students with disabilities (including those with health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus) have the legal right to receive their education in the regular educational environment, alongside their peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs.

The investigations will also explore whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking violate that right.

Published on August 31, 2021.