The US government has announced that it is investigating five states with Republican governors who have banned orders to wear masks in schools due to COVID-19, arguing that such policies could be discriminatory against students with disabilities or health conditions.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sent letters to the heads of education in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. Those states have banned schools from requiring students and staff to wear face masks, a move the department says could prevent some students from safely attending university.
“It is simply unacceptable that state leaders put politics above the health and education of the students they have sworn to serve,” Education Minister Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “The department will strive to protect the right of all students to have safe access to personal learning.”
The investigation represents a sharp escalation in President Joe Biden’s administration’s battle with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal decision. Biden asked Cardona last week to explore potential legal action, prompting the administration to examine whether the policies could amount to civil rights abuses.
The state’s policies run counter to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal use of masks for students and teachers in the classroom.
If investigations find that the state’s mask ban discriminates against students with disabilities, it could lead to penalties, including the loss of federal education funding.
The department said it has not opened investigations in other states where bans have been overturned or not enforced by courts, such as Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona. But the agency said it was “closely monitoring” those countries and was ready to take action if necessary.