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Ed Dept. to Use Civil Rights Authority to Press for Face Masks in Schools

August 19, 2021 by Dan McCue
Education Secretary Miguel Cardono visited the White House press room Thursday to warn Americans not allow politics to prevent students from returning to school safely. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Education will invoke its civil rights enforcement authority to prevent states from imposing universal bans on wearing face masks in classrooms, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on Wednesday.

The decision represents a dramatic escalation of the battle between the White House and Republican governors who have blocked local school districts from requiring face masks to protect students, teachers and staff against the coronavirus.

In a memorandum laying out the new policy, President Joe Biden said, “as the school year starts across the country, a top priority of my administration is to do everything in our power to ensure a safe return to full-time, in-person school for our nation’s children.”

He went on to note that many state and local officials have committed to beginning the new school year “safely and responsibly” by implementing science-based prevention and mitigation strategies promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control.

“At the same time, however, some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning,” Biden said. 

“Some of these policies and laws have gone so far as to try to block school officials from adopting safety protocols aligned with recommendations from the CDC to protect students, educators, and staff,” he continued. “And some state officials have even threatened to impose personal financial consequences on school officials who are working tirelessly to put student health and safety first and to comply with their legal obligations to their communities to further the essential goal of a safe, in-person education for all students.”

Vowing that “nothing should interfere” with the goal of ensuring the safety “in our school communities,” Biden directed Cardona to review state actions and determine whether governors and other officials are providing students with the opportunity “to participate and remain in safe full-time, in-person learning without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities.”

In cases where they are not, the president said, Cardona is directed to pursue “possible enforcement actions” under all applicable laws.

The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is a federal agency with the responsibility of ensuring equal access to education through the enforcement of civil rights. 

Several federal agencies have offices for civil rights attached to them, but the OCR in the Department of Education is specifically responsible for enforcing numerous federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the Department of Education. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone in school wears a mask, regardless of vaccination status, so that schools can more safely resume in-person instruction. 

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