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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks in Boston.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky speak at a forum held at the Yawkey Boys & Girls Club on August 6, 2021 in Boston. (Photo: Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Biden Education Dept Threatens GOP Leaders With Legal Action, Federal Probes Over Mask Mandate Bans

"We totally need the help," said one school superintendent of a Florida district that's been threatened with sanctions for defying a ban on mask mandates.

Julia Conley

President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona warned Republican governors across the country on Wednesday that they could face federal investigations and legal action over their attempts to "block and intimidate" school districts into abandoning mask mandates.

The president said he had ordered Cardona to use "all of his oversight authorities and legal action if appropriate" against governors including Greg Abbott in Texas, Doug Ducey in Arizona, and Ron DeSantis in Florida. Through executive action and legislation, several Republican governors have threatened to pull state and federal funding from school districts if they enforce mask requirements for students and teachers as the school year begins. School districts across the country are requiring universal masking in accordance with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

"The Department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally."
—Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

Cardona sent letters to Abbott, DeSantis, and Ducey last week, as well as the governors of Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Tennessee.

The education secretary told Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in a letter (pdf) that the state's law prohibiting universal mask-wearing in schools "appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies" and limits local officials' "ability under the [American Rescue Plan] to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction."

"It is within [a school district's] discretion to use [ARP funds] for implementing indoor masking policies or other policies aligned with CDC guidance," Cardona wrote. 

On Wednesday, Cardona elaborated on how the Education Department plans to hold GOP leaders accountable for undermining public health guidance for schools in a post on the department's blog.

"The Department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally," the secretary wrote

The department's Office of Civil Rights will "receive and respond as appropriate to complaints from the public, including parents, guardians, and others about students who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures," he added.

As Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post on Thursday, an investigation could result in an "official finding" of wrongdoing and could be referred to the Justice Department for further enforcement of civil rights statutes. 

Cardona said on social media that the department would use "every tool" at its disposal to help protect students as they return to school, particularly in states where Republican leaders are urging schools to flout CDC guidance.

The department's Office of Special Education Programs is also monitoring states' implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws that require "that students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education."

In Texas, Abbott has already faced legal action from Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group that sued the governor this week for putting children with disabilities at greater risk for contracting Covid-19. 

The Education Department's statement came as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the largest school district in Florida and the fourth-largest in the U.S., announced it would defy DeSantis' mask mandate ban—potentially risking state funding.

Several other school districts in Florida have made similar announcements in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the Florida Board of Education said Alachua and Broward Counties may be subject to sanctions over officials' refusal to abide by the governor's executive order. 

In addition to opening civil rights investigations and taking legal action against governors, the Education Department said last week it would use federal relief funds to replace state funds taken away from school districts.

"Any threat by Florida to withhold salaries from superintendents and school board members who are working to protect students and educators (or to levy other financial penalties) can be addressed using [ARP funds] at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts," said Cardona in a letter (pdf) to DeSantis.

At least one school official in Florida expressed appreciation that the administration is coming to the aid of school districts and threatening GOP leaders with federal action. 

"We totally need the help," Carlee Simon, the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools in Florida, told the Post on Thursday. "We need that support."

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