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S.C. hit with civil rights probe over ban on school mask mandates

Published: Aug. 30, 2021 at 1:18 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON - The U.S. Education Department announced Monday that it’s investigating South Carolina and four other Republican-led states with bans on universal mask mandates in schools.

The agency says the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights sent letters to education chiefs in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. Those states have barred schools from requiring masks among students and staff, a move that the department says could prevent some students from safely attending school.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely.”

The agency is concerned that state mask restrictions on schools and school districts “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 letter states.

The department has not opened investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions. Due to these rulings and actions, districts should be able to implement universal indoor masking in schools to protect the health and safety of their students and staff, the department said.

However, the department said it will continue to closely monitor those states and is prepared to take action if state leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking or if the current court decisions were to be reversed.

The investigations will explore each state’s compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), which is a federal law that protects students with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability. Section 504 guarantees qualified students with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education in elementary and secondary school. This includes the right of students with disabilities to receive their education in the regular educational environment, alongside their peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs.

The investigations will also explore whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems and institutions.

On Aug. 18, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum directing Cardona to “assess all available tools in taking action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law” to ensure that governors and other officials are giving all students the opportunity to participate and remain in full-time, in-person learning safely, without compromising their health or the health of their families.

The Associated Press contributed to this report