In a growing battle with Republican governors, President Joe Biden on Wednesday directed his Secretary of Education to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked mandates for school masks and other public health measures designed to protect children. students against COVID-19.
In response, the Department of Education raised the possibility of using its civil rights arm to fight policies in Florida, Texas, Iowa and other Republican-led states that have banned public schools from requiring masks in the classroom.
Biden ordered Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to “evaluate all available tools” that can be used against states that fail to protect students amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
“Some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning,” Biden said in an executive order, adding that some states “have gone as far as to try to stop school officials ”from taking security measures.
It is the most acute threat yet to states that have so far ignored warnings from the White House during the growing pandemic. The measure also injects the federal government into culture wars that have turned schools into battlefields in a debate over masks.
In an announcement on its website, the Department of Education said policies prohibiting mask mandates could constitute discrimination if they lead to unsafe conditions that prevent students from attending school. The agency can initiate its own investigations into possible violations and also responds to civil rights complaints from parents and the public.
“The department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may violate the rights of all students to equal access to public education,” Cardona said in a statement. He added that states that ban mask mandates are “unnecessarily putting students, families and educators at risk.”
The agency’s Office for Civil Rights can issue a series of penalties up to a total loss of federal education funds in cases of civil rights violations.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has gone ahead with banning school mask requirements, and state education officials are now weighing whether to withhold the salaries of some superintendents who have challenged the order. Texas and at least six other states have instituted similar bans.
State policies go against the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends the use of universal masks for students and teachers in the classroom. In its guidance, the CDC cited the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.
Biden indicated last week that he believes he personally does not have the authority to revoke the policies, but pleaded with Republican governors to reconsider their bans. If they don’t help, he urged them to “at least get out of the way.”
While most states allow school districts to determine their own mask policies, some have been on both sides of the debate. Some, including California, Louisiana and Virginia, have moved to require masks in schools for most students this fall. In other states that have banned mandates, leaders say families should decide.
Protesters opposing the masks’ mandates have attended state and local school board meetings in recent weeks, in some cases diverting the meetings.
In letters to Florida and Texas last week, Cardona said his bans may violate the American Rescue Plan, which provided $ 123 billion to the nation’s schools to help them return to classrooms. The policies prevent schools from developing safe reopening plans, a requirement of the legislation, he said.
Similar letters are also being sent to Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, Cardona said Wednesday.
“Let me be clear,” he wrote, “this department will continue to use all the tools 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.”