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States banning mask mandates could face civil rights probes, on Biden's directive

Biden's ordered Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to “assess all available tools” that can be used against states.

Updated: August 19, 2021 - 9:08am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

President Biden is ratcheting up opposition to Republican governors blocking COVID mask mandates in schools, putting in charge the Education Department, which is raising the possibility of using its civil rights arm to oppose such policies.

Biden on Wednesday ordered Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to “assess all available tools” that can be used against states that fail to protect students amid surging 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. 

He also said some states “have gone so far as to try to block school officials” from adopting safety measures, including but not exclusive to the mask issue.

In response, Cardone raised the possibility of using the department’s civil rights arm to fight policies in Florida, Texas, Iowa and other GOP-led states that have barred public schools from requiring masks in the classroom, according to the Associated Press

"The 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," he said in a statement. 

The department said on it website policies that ban mask mandates could amount to discrimination if they lead to unsafe conditions that prevent students from attending school. 

The department can launch its own investigations into potential violations, and it also responds to civil rights complaints from parents and the public, the wire service also reports.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights can issue sanctions including a total loss of federal education funding in cases of related violations.

Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis has put a ban on school mask requirements, and the state’s education officials are now weighing whether to withhold salaries of some superintendents who have defied the order. Texas and at least six other states have instituted similar prohibitions.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom.