Texas, Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah have all banned mask mandates in schools, a rebuke of safety recommendations from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Some conservatives, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, say they’re protecting the parental choice of those who don’t want to wear masks even as the highly contagious Delta variant ripples across nation and children under age 12 remain ineligible for vaccination.
“Some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said. “Some are even trying to take power away from local educators by banning masks in school. They’re setting a dangerous tone.”
Biden, in a memo sent Wednesday to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, said the Education Department must take action to ensure governors and other officials are allowing a safe return to classrooms and “not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations.”
Cardona, in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday, said that he may use the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to prevent states from banning mask wearing in schools. The department could launch civil rights investigations for school districts and state education agencies if their policies impede students’ access to education.
“Our priority must be the safety of students, families, educators, and staff in our school communities,” Biden wrote. “Nothing should interfere with this goal.”
States that prohibit schools from using masks to keep kids and staff safe are interfering with the administration’s goal of a safe return to in-person learning, the memo said. The Education Department on Wednesday also sent letters to Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah which say their policies “are at odds” with requirements in the American Rescue Plan.
School districts that received emergency relief funds from the law are required to “adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services.” And the law, according to Cardona, gives school districts the authority to use funds for “developing strategies and implementing public health protocols including … policies in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the reopening and operation of school facilities,” which includes masks.
House Education and Labor Committee ranking member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) on Wednesday challenged the department’s interpretation of the law and demanded confirmation that states are not required to allow mask mandates in schools as a condition of receiving the emergency funds.
“These states are needlessly placing students, families, and educators at risk,” Cardona wrote in a blog on Wednesday. “Yet in each of these states, there are also educators and others who are taking steps to protect the health and safety of their school communities.”
The letters also reiterated that the department will stand with school districts that do adopt masks and go against state bans.
“We will take any necessary action to ensure that nothing interferes with a school district’s discretion to make these critical investments,” Cardona wrote. He added that the department would also pay the full salaries of educators “if their state moves to withhold their salary or levy financial penalties on their schools.”
Cardona also waived the threat of civil rights investigations, saying his agency has the authority to “investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally.” OCR evaluates each allegation of discrimination on a “case-by-case basis,” and the Department’s Office of Special Education Programs ensures students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education.
“Let me be clear — this department will continue to use every tool in our toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators and to maximize in-person learning as the new school year begins,” Cardona wrote.
Juan Perez Jr. contributed to this report.