President Biden asked his education secretary to see what could be done about states that prohibit school districts from enacting CDC public health recommendations. Miguel Cardona responded by empowering his Office of Civil Rights to investigate.
Masking debates have largely pitted proven public health measures against personal rights and freedoms. Civil rights were not viewed as a factor until August 30 when Suzanne B. Goldberg, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education, sent letters notifying the heads of five state education departments that they were prepared to take action to protect the health of children with disabilities.
"It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve," said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a department press release. "The Department will fight to protect every student's right to access in-person learning safely..."
"The department’s civil rights head wrote to state education leaders in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, notifying them that the department’s Office for Civil Rights would determine whether the prohibitions are restricting access for students who are protected under federal law from discrimination based on their disabilities, and are entitled to a free appropriate public education," reported Erica L. Green and Daniel E. Slotnik for The New York Times on Aug. 30 (source article).
The letters state that students with disabilities "are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19." According to guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on August 5, "due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."
To underscore the. importance of public health measures to reduce coronavirus transmission among children, CDC released a report on Sept. 3 that showed that "[w]eekly COVID-19–associated hospitalization rates among children and adolescents rose nearly five-fold during late June–mid-August 2021, coinciding with increased circulation of the highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant."
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas have received much media attention by using their authority and state legislation to preempt local governments and school districts from requiring universal masking, but those two states, as well as Arkansas and Arizona, were not among the five "because those states' bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions," according to the Education Department's press release.
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