(KCAU) – Iowa is among five states being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) as to prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities, specifically in regards to COVID-19.
The (OCR) opened directed investigations Monday in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah to see if the statewide prohibitions prevent those students from safely accessing in-person education.
Specifically, the investigations will look at how each state is complying with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 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, including the right to receive an education “in the regular educational environment, alongside their peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs,” the release states.
The investigations will also explore if the bans on mask mandates 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.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the Department of Education has heard from parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions about how bans on masking are putting children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally.
“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,” Cardona added.
The letters were sent to the chief state school officers of the states. The OCR says the letters outline how the lack of universal indoor masking prevents 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.
Get news sent directly to your email.
Subscribe to KCAU 9 Newsletters here.
OCR said in the letter that it is concerned that state mask restrictions “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.”
Investigations have not been opened in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona as their states bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced due to court orders or other state actions. However, the Department of Education said it will closely monitor them and is ready to take action if leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing masking or if the current court decisions were to be reversed.
The release from the U.S. Department of Education said that opening a directed investigation does not imply that OCR has decided whether there has been a violation of a law that OCR enforces.