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Department of Education opens civil rights investigation into Florida ban on mask mandates

New CDC figures appear to bolster Gov. DeSantis argument for parental choice over mask mandates.

Updated: September 11, 2021 - 12:50pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The Biden administration's Department of Education (DOE) has opened a civil rights investigation into Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's executive order banning mask mandates in schools on the same day that the First District Court of Appeals reinstated the ban after it had been blocked by a Leon County, Florida circuit judge. 

The DOE's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said in a Friday letter addressed to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran that it was "opening a directed investigation" into whether the governor's statewide ban "may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities," according to The Hill.

"OCR's investigation will focus on whether, in light of this policy, students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law," wrote Suzanne Goldberg, the DOE's acting assistant secretary for civil rights. 

DeSantis defends the ban, arguing that the decision for a child to wear a mask at school should be up to their parents. 

But some local school districts have defied his order, arguing that the absence of masking requirements puts children at risk, "especially since young people under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine." 

In a statement issued on Friday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said he had "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." 

The announcement of this investigation by the DOE comes just days after the CDC released a report titled "Trends in COVID-19 Cases, Emergency Department Visits, and Hospital Admissions Among Children and Adolescents Aged 0–17 Years — United States, August 2020–August 2021." 

This data was based on reports from 260 medical centers in the U.S. The major findings were that 1,790 kids were hospitalized with COVID during the period from August 2020 to August 2021, and a total of eight have died. 

Of the more than 70 million children in the U.S. under the age of 18, "1,790 COVID-19 hospitalizations occurred among persons aged 0–17 years during August 1, 2020–August 21, 2021. Median length of stay ranged from 2 to 3 days during the entire period … A total of eight in-hospital COVID-19–related deaths in persons aged 0–17 years occurred during August 2020–August 2021 (0.4% of hospitalized patients)," according to the CDC report.

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