Biden Admin Considers Using Civil Rights Law to Challenge GOP Governors’ Anti-Mask Mandate Orders

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 5, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Wednesday that he would be willing to pursue legal action against the Republican-led states that have blocked school districts from imposing mask requirements in schools.

In a interview with the New York Times, Cardona argued that federal civil rights law empowered him to take action against the Republican governors who have banned mask mandates in public schools through executive orders, saying he was “appalled that there are adults who are blind to their blindness, that there are people who are putting policies in place that are putting students and staff at risk.”

Potential civil rights disputes could arise if state policies result in parent petitions or personal appeals asserting that the mask mandate ban endangers students and jeopardizes their right to a free, appropriate public education, a standard known as FAPE under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Then, the education department could probe the districts where the complaints originated.

Addressing the nation Wednesday, President Biden said he would authorize the Department of Education to exercise full oversight authority and potentially take legal action against GOP governors who have argued that the decision to mask in schools should be at parents’ discretion.

Biden indicated the administration would not tolerate “intimidation and threats” against school boards from Republican governors.

Last week, Cardona sent letters to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, both Republicans, suggesting that the administration could siphon off federal funds provided under the American Rescue Plan to reimburse school officials penalized over the states’ mask mandate bans.

“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 ESSER funds at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts,” Cardona declared.

Cardona’s notices came after DeSantis threatened to revoke state funds from school districts that force students to wear masks in schools in defiance of his order. The Biden administration will issue letters to six other Republican states, including Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, reprimanding their governors for enacting similar bans.

“Unfortunately, as you’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden commented at Wednesday’s press briefing. “We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”

Rather than outlawing mask-wearing in public schools, states such as Florida and Texas have banned mask mandates, leaving it up to parents, rather than the government, to make the decision for their children.

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