Biden faces down GOP governors who are blocking school mask mandates

By: - August 19, 2021 6:08 pm

A Council Bluffs mother is suing Gov. Kim Reynolds over the law prohibiting schools from mandating face masks. (Photo by Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — With eight states so far prohibiting schools from levying mask requirements, President Joe Biden is pledging that his administration will use all of its oversight and legal authority to stick up for local officials trying to keep their schools safe.

What remains to be seen is how far the federal government can or will go in trying to check Republican governors and their mask mandate bans — and whether the standoff ends up in the courts. The Biden administration has limited authority to regulate local school policies, though it does wield significant influence through the sizable sums of money flowing to school districts.

The feds also could launch civil rights investigations, which Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona alluded to in a blog post Wednesday.

Democrats warn schools against trying to defy state law

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law in May that prohibited school districts and other local governments from requiring masks be worn in their facilities.

Reynolds said again Thursday that she would stand by that law.

She also has returned $95 million in federal pandemic aid intended for COVID-19 testing and other resources to facilitate school reopening.

While advocating for local control, Iowa Democratic legislators cautioned at a news conference Thursday that schools could face consequences beyond the loss of state aid if they try to defy state law.

House Democratic Leader Jennifer Konfrst of Windsor Heights pointed to punitive legislation approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature and disciplinary action against the Des Moines superintendent after the district refused to comply with state requirements for in-person instruction.

“So I do think that this is something that we should not have to be asking school boards to consider breaking the law in order to keep families safe. School boards should be able to make those decisions for themselves,” she said.

Two parents who spoke at the news conference said the federal pressure for local control may not help their families.

“I happen to be at a school district that does not have any plans with COVID 19 mitigation at this time,” Julie Russell Steuart said. “So if the Biden administration is encouraging school districts to have masks in place, then my school district isn’t one that would just voluntarily do that. So I would really like to see something with more teeth,” she said.

Russell-Steuart was one of the organizers of a rally at the State Capitol earlier this month calling on Reynolds to roll back the ban on mask mandates.

–  Kathie Obradovich

He emphasized that the federal Education Department 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.”

That could include digging into complaints from parents who believe their student is facing discrimination because a state won’t allow a school district to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures, Cardona wrote.

He added that the department’s Office of Special Education Programs also will be monitoring any effects on the free, appropriate public education guaranteed under the federal special education law.

“The federal government is trying to do everything they can, within the power that they have,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and former superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools.

Cardona sent letters this week to governors in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah, writing that restrictions on mask mandates in schools put children at risk.

Unvaccinated kids

Only children over 12 are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, with approval of a shot for younger children not expected until later this fall or winter. That leaves mask-wearing as a critical protection step as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations rise nationally.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia require everyone to wear masks in K-12 schools, according to data compiled by Pew Charitable Trusts. The eight states that Cardona wrote to prohibit any such requirement and 29 states leave the decision up to local school districts. New Mexico requires masks for non-vaccinated people in schools.

In states where students have returned to the classroom to begin the school year, thousands of students already have been required to quarantine after exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

So far, the Biden administration’s public actions have been written and verbal missives directed at governors who Biden says are trying to block and intimidate local officials that want to protect students and school staffers.

“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 during  remarks Wednesday from the White House, adding, “We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”

Cardona in his letters to the eight states with bans emphasized that school districts are allowed to use federal COVID-19 relief money to implement masking policies — though he stopped short of explicitly saying the relief dollars could be revoked if state officials do not relent.

That prompted U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who is the ranking GOP lawmaker on the House Education and Labor Committee, to ask Cardona to confirm by Friday if states are required to allow districts to mandate masks if they receive federal COVID-19 relief dollars for schools.

Paying salaries 

So far, instead of threatening to withhold money, the Biden administration has pledged to ensure districts have sufficient funding available if state officials penalize them for enacting policies aimed at mitigating virus-related risks.

That includes paying salaries for educators and administrators, Biden and other officials have said.

Domenech said backfilling any local dollars withdrawn by a state could be done by federal officials boosting money to a district, adding that substantial federal dollars already go directly to school districts beyond what they also receive filtered through state coffers.

Julie Underwood, dean emerita for the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education, said the federal government has long influenced education policy through a financial carrot-and-stick approach, most notably in special education requirements.

She described the civil rights route that the Biden administration is eying as a “logical” approach. Immunization requirements for schools have shown that “we do draw the line in favor of children’s health,” Underwood said.

“Are they thinking about health as a civil rights matter?” she asked. “Do we all have a right, a civil right, to in fact be protected from contagious disease all over the United States?”

That question will likely be up to the determination of a federal judge.

Domenech said he does expect the state-federal dispute over masking in schools to eventually end up in court, creating another layer of chaos and uncertainty for local school officials

“In the interim, it does open a door for the right of a school district to mandate” masks, Domenech said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Iowa Capital Dispatch. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

MORE FROM AUTHOR