The United States Department of Education is currently investigating five states that have banned universal masking for in-person learning for civil rights violations.

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An image of a mask on top of a backpack.
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Could statewide policies prohibiting school mask mandates be a violation of civil rights for students who have disabilities? The United States Department of Education thinks this might be a case as restrictions on masking could prevent vulnerable and immunocompromised children from safely returning to in-person learning.

On Monday, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights announced that it's currently launching an investigation into five of the states that have banned mask mandates for students.

So, what does this investigation entail? The Office for Civil Rights is conducting the investigations to determine whether these state mask restrictions are a barrier for students who have disabilities, preventing them from "safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal Law." The Office for Civil Rights has sent letters to chief state officials in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah notifying them of the investigations.

These letters also indicate that school mask restrictions in those states could be preventing schools "from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal education opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19."

Earlier in August, President Joe Biden instructed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to "access all available tools" that would compel governors to ensure that a safe return to in-person learning would be accessible to all students, including a White House memo that urged "consideration of whether to take steps toward the initiation of possible enforcement actions under applicable laws."

In a statement to CNN, Dr. Cardona said "the Department has heard from parents across the country—particularly parents of students with disabilities and 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."

He continued, "It is simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students that 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."

Although Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona have also implemented similar bans on universal indoor making, these states are not currently being investigated because they are not enforcing the bans through court orders. However, the press release from the Department of Education stated that "the Department will continue to closely monitor these states and is prepared to take action if state leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking in schools or if the current court decisions were to be reversed."