Biden Administration Wades Into School Mask Mandate Ban Fight, Opens Probe in 5 States

The Education Department announced Monday that it's opening probes into five Republican-led states with universal mask bans: Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, the Associated Press reported.

It cited concerns that the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

"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."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

School vaccine mandate protest
The Biden administration announced it will open probes into five states with universal mask mandate bans for schools. Above, an attendee sits next to anti-vaccine mandate signs at a special board of education meeting on mask mandates for students and staff in Kalamazoo County Schools at the Schoolcraft High School Gymnasium on August 23, 2021, in Schoolcraft, Michigan. Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

The department's Office for Civil Rights sent letters to education chiefs in the five states. Those states have barred schools from requiring masks among students and staff, a move that the department says could prevent some students from safely attending school.

It marks a sharp escalation in the Biden administration's battle with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal choice. President Joe 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 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom.

If the 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.

Miguel Cardona
The Biden Administration is opening probes into five states with universal mask bans at their schools. Above, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks to press after a visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, on August 17, 2021, in New York. Brittainy Newman/AP Photo