Feds exploring if statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities.

The U.S. Education Department said on Monday that it has opened civil rights investigations into Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Iowa and Utah. These investigations will examine whether bans on indoor mask mandates discriminate against kids with disabilities.

The Department of Education argue that if students with disabilities do not feel safe returning to school because their peers would not be wearing masks, then the ban on indoor mask mandates would be found in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and/or Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a press release that the Department heard from a multitude of parents from across the country, particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions. They were concerned that bans on indoor mask mandates in school districts are putting their children at risk and preventing them from an equal in-person learning experience.

“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,” said Secretary Cardona.

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent letters to chief school officers in  IowaOklahomaSouth CarolinaTennessee, and Utah. The letters focused on how banning indoor masking prevents schools from establishing essential health and safety policies that are needed to protect students from COVID-19.

The OCR has expressed concern in the letter that by banning masks in schools districts, it “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 safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators, and that families have confidence that their schools are doing everything possible to keep students healthy,” the letter continues.

Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona have state bans on universal indoor masking, but cannot be enforced due to court orders or actions taken by other states. The Department has noted that they will closely monitor the states and will be prepared to take action if local schools or districts were to implement indoor masking or if court decisions were to be undone.

Mississippi has no restrictions on school masking nor does it have a mandate in place to require masks. Local school districts are making those determinations at present.