WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) opened directed investigations in five states, including Iowa, exploring whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.
The Iowa Legislature passed and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a mask mandate ban for cities, counties, and school districts on the last day of the 2021 legislative session.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called Iowa’s actions “unacceptable.”
“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,” Cardona said in a released 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. The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”
OCR sent a letter today to Dr. Ann Lebo, Director of the Iowa Department of Education, outlining how they believe prohibitions of universal indoor masking prevent school districts from implementing health and safety policies that they determine are necessary to protect students from exposure to COVID-19, including those with underlying medical conditions related to their disability.
OCR 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.
They also sent letters to the chief state school officers of Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. The U.S. Department of Education announced OCR 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.
The investigation 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, commonly referred to as FAPE. 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. OCR’s regional offices will begin collecting data from each state educational agency as part of the direct investigations over the coming weeks.
On August 18, 2021, President Biden issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the Secretary of Education 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.
Reynolds in a released statement criticizing the Biden Administration investigation.
“Iowa was able to reopen schools safely and responsibly over a year ago. President Biden and his team know this, yet they’ve decided to pick a political fight with a handful of governors to distract from his own failures – Afghanistan, the border, inflation, and more,” she said.
“As I’ve said all along, I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families. Iowa’s democratically elected legislature endorsed that view as well when they passed a law to support a parent’s right to decide what’s best for their own children. In Iowa, we will continue to support individual liberty over government mandates,” Reynolds added.
Read the letter sent to Dr. Ann Lebo below:20210830-iowa-doe