This past Monday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched investigations into five states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah — which have instituted statewide prohibitions on mask-wearing requirements in schools. The investigation seeks to uncover whether this prohibition constitutes discrimination against students with disabilities who are at a heightened risk for severe illness if they contract COVID-19 by preventing them from accessing in-person instruction safely.
The department declined to open investigations in Texas and three other states which have instituted statewide prohibitions on mask-wearing requirements because the prohibitions in these states are currently not being enforced due to ongoing litigation. The Department of Education stated they are closely monitoring the situations in these four states and are prepared to take action if the prohibition is enforced.
For the five states which are currently under investigation, the department sent letters to the heads of their state education agencies. These letters state that the prohibition puts students with disabilities at a disproportionate risk and outline how this could be preventing schools from meeting their legal obligation to not discriminate against students with disabilities.
According to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, students with disabilities are protected from discrimination and are guaranteed the right to receive education in a regular educational environment to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems and institutions. The department is collecting data from each state educational agency to determine if the investigated states violate any of these federal laws.