Biden administration launches civil rights investigations of Iowa and other states banning school mask requirements

By: - August 30, 2021 2:51 pm

Des Moines Public School students returned to the classroom on Aug. 25, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)

WASHINGTON — Federal education officials have launched civil rights investigations in Iowa and four other Republican-led states that have prohibited school districts from mandating mask-wearing, saying those policies could amount to illegal discrimination against students with disabilities.

The Biden administration notified the education chiefs in IowaTennesseeSouth CarolinaUtah and Oklahoma of the investigations through formal letters Monday.

The new investigations will examine whether “students with disabilities, who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19, are prevented from safely returning to in-person education” as a result of the state policies preventing universal masking, according to the letters.

The investigations come after President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona pledged earlier this month to use the administration’s full oversight and legal authority to stick up for local school officials imposing universal mask mandates in defiance of GOP politicians.

As of last week, eight states had prohibited school districts from setting mask requirements, according to a tally by Education Week, with lawsuits winding through the court system in several of those states. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill in May that forbids Iowa schools, counties and cities from requiring face coverings.

Reynolds said a federal civil rights investigation into the state’s ban on mask mandates merely means President Joe Biden, a Democrat, decided to “pick a political fight.”

“Iowa was able to reopen schools safely and responsibly over a year ago. President Biden and his team know this, yet they’ve decided to pick a political fight with a handful of governors to distract from his own failures — Afghanistan, the border, inflation, and more,” Reynolds said in a statement.

“As I’ve said all along, I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families. Iowa’s democratically elected legislature endorsed that view as well when they passed a law to support a parent’s right to decide what’s best for their own children. In Iowa, we will continue to support individual liberty over government mandates,” Reynolds added.

Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville welcomed the investigation in a statement:

“It’s inexcusable that Kim Reynolds and other Statehouse Republicans are putting our children in danger to advance their extreme political agenda. We should be doing everything we can to keep our kids safely in school, and I’m glad the Department of Education is stepping in to investigate Reynolds’ failure.”

Iowa also faces a lawsuit challenging the legality of the mask law.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order that requires public schools and school districts to allow parents to opt their child out of a mask mandate, and his lieutenant governor has threatened to take “remedial options” against school systems that refuse to follow

Cardona had sent letters earlier this month 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.

Federal education officials said they have not launched investigations in Florida, Arizona, and several other states where bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced due to court orders or other state actions. The agency said it will closely monitor those states and is prepared to take action if local schools are prevented from implementing universal masking.

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.

It also can launch civil rights investigations as it did Monday, citing authority to enforce federal laws that protect students with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability. Those laws include a right for students with disabilities to receive their education in the regular educational environment, alongside peers without disabilities, according to the Department of Education.

But federal education officials are arguing that preventing mask use could infringe on that right by “preventing schools from making individualized assessments about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person,” according to the letters.

“National data also show that children with some underlying medical conditions, including those with certain disabilities, are at higher risk than other children for experiencing severe illness from COVID-19,” Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg wrote. “At the same time, extensive evidence supports the universal use of masks over the nose and mouth to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”

The next steps in the state-federal skirmish may come quickly. Officials from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights will contact state education officials within a week to request data and other information necessary for the investigations.

— Perry Beeman contributed to this report.

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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.