Education Department opens civil rights probe into Florida mask mandate ban

An administrator confirms student health check data on a laptop on the first day of the school year at Grant Elementary School, in Los Angeles
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The Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) executive order banning mask mandates violates the rights of students with disabilities. 

The Department of Education’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 statewide ban on mask requirements in schools “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities.” 

“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,” Suzanne Goldberg, the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, added in the letter. 

She went on to say that the probe will look at whether Florida “may be preventing schools from making individualized assessments about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person, consistent with their right to receive a free appropriate public education and to be free from discrimination based on their disability.” 

The announcement of the probe comes the same day the First District Court of Appeals reinstated DeSantis’s ban on school mask mandates after a Leon County circuit judge blocked the executive order. 

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

However, local school districts have continued to defy 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. 

The OCR’s probe into the Florida mandate follows similar investigations launched into school officials in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah over their statewide bans on school mask requirements. 

The investigations are specifically looking at whether the bans violate components of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibit disability-based discrimination and grant all students the right to free public schooling. 

In a statement shared with The Hill 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.” 

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” he continued. “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.”

The Hill has reached out to the Florida education commissioner, as well as the governor’s office, for comment on the new probe.

Tags Americans with Disabilities Act Department of Education Disability Disability rights Florida Mask mandate ban Miguel Cardona Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis

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