The Department of Education announced on Monday that it is launching an investigation into five states that have implemented mask mandate bans, claiming that such bans could pose a danger to students’ health.
The investigation by the department’s civil rights office will look into Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, where Republican lawmakers have barred school districts from implementing mask mandates. In their probe, the department will seek to determine whether the bans have violated the law in discriminating against students who are more susceptible to COVID-19.
“The Department has heard from parents from across the country – particularly parents of students with disabilities and with 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,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a statement. “It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve.”
In a press release on the investigation, the department says that it is not looking into other states with mask bans because those bans aren’t currently being enforced uniformly. Indeed, bans implemented by the Republican governors of Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona aren’t currently enforced because of court decisions, school districts’ refusals to comply, legislative restrictions, or a combination of several factors. The Education Department will instead continue to monitor those four states for potential violations, it said.
The investigation is part of an ongoing effort by the Biden administration to crack down on governors — Republicans, largely — who are making returning to in-person schooling more hazardous for children, their families, and staff.
In their press release, the Education Department said that the investigation was part of an effort by the agency to comply with an order from President Biden earlier this month that directed Cardona to “assess all available tools in taking action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law” to ensure that in-person schooling amid COVID can remain safe.
Letters sent to state heads of schools from the Education Department cite concerning statistics about child COVID rates and research showing that masks are largely effective at preventing spread of the virus, despite the personal opinions of Republican leaders.
While many schools were not open for in-person instruction full-time through last year, the Biden administration has taken steps to encourage schools to reopen. Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, following a threat that President Donald Trump made last year, threatened this month to withhold funding from schools if they implement a mask mandate in defiance of his ban.
Some Republicans like Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa falsely claim that masks are bad for children psychologically, implying that those imagined effects could be worse than a child or their family members contracting and potentially dying of COVID-19. Right-wing pundits and lawmakers have been trying to say, without evidence, that children are negatively harmed by having to wear a mask, but research has shown that if there are negative effects from mask-wearing on children, they are negligible.
Other Republicans like South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Henry McMaster falsely claim that there’s evidence that schools are safe havens from COVID, although no such evidence exists.
The first few weeks of the school year have so far shown that this is anything but true. COVID cases have spread like wildfire among children as schools return to in-person education. Pediatric hospitalizations due to COVID have shot up to record highs over the course of this month and dozens of children have died.