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The U.S. Education Department announced Monday it’s investigating five Republican-led states including Iowa that have banned local school boards from enacting mask requirements in their districts, saying the policies could discriminate against students with disabilities or health conditions.
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 all students and staff.
“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.”
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But Iowans can decide for themselves whether to wear masks without any federal intervention, Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement accusing President Joe Biden of picking a political fight to try to obscure problems in Afghanistan and at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“As I’ve said all along, I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families,” her statement said. “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.”
Last week, Reynolds told reporters that Biden was kowtowing to the teachers’ union and doing a disservice to families. “ … It is unconscionable what they are doing to those kids,” she said Thursday. “And so we’re going to do what we’ve done, and that is keep our kids in school.”
However, Julie Russell-Steuart, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s disability caucus, in a statement said Reynolds should be working to protect Iowa’s most vulnerable, including children with disabilities or medical conditions.
“Democrats want safe schools where our children, educators, and support staff can thrive without fear of getting or spreading a deadly virus. We have the science and the data to understand how to lessen the risks, and we need to be able to use those tools,” Russell-Steuart said in the statement. “I am heartened to see that President Biden and the federal Department of Education are taking the crisis in Iowa seriously and I welcome their efforts to hold Gov. Reynolds accountable.”
Monday’s move marks a sharp escalation in the Biden administration’s battle with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal choice. Biden last week asked Cardona to explore possible legal action, prompting the department to examine whether the policies could amount to civil rights violations.
The state policies conflict with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom. No COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for use by children under 12, and health experts say the currently surging delta variant of the virus is much more easily transmittable.
If the department’s investigations determine that the state mask bans have discriminated against students with disabilities, it could lead to sanctions including a loss of federal education funding.
The department said it has not opened investigations in other states where mask bans have been overturned by courts or are not being enforced, including in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona. But the agency said it is “closely monitoring” those states and is prepared to take action if necessary.
The investigations aim to determine whether state mask bans amount to a violation of students’ right to a free, public education. The department is raising concerns that, in areas with high COVID-19 transmissions, the bans could discriminate against students who are at heightened risk for severe illness.
The department is launching the investigations at its own discretion and not in response to complaints from parents, Cardona said, but families have raised concerns that mask bans could put children with disabilities or health conditions at risk.
Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed.