The U.S. Department of Education has added Florida to the list of states it is investigating for prohibiting local school districts from adopting universal mask mandates or undercutting those mandates.
The Education Department informed the state in a Sept. 10 letter that its office for civil rights has opened a directed investigation into the Florida education department over state policy that allows parents to opt out of district mask mandates.
The Biden administration “is concerned that Florida’s policy requiring public schools and school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates may be preventing schools in Florida from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19,” acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg wrote to Florida Education Commissioner Corcoran.
The probes will determine whether the state is in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires schools to provide a free and adequate public education to students with disabilities.
The Biden administration opened similar probes into five other states—Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah—at the end of August. At that time, the administration held off on opening investigations into Florida, as well as Arizona, Arkansas, and Texas, because those states chose to suspend such bans, or because of ongoing legal action.
The new Florida investigation promises to ratchet up divisions between the Biden administration and several states over COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools. Whether schools should require masks in schools has become a burning national political issue this school year. Fights over mask mandates have reached a boiling point, and the anger has at least occasionally spilled over onto school campuses.
Over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised K-12 leaders in controversial guidance to require universal masking in schools. But several state leaders, led by Republican governors, have countered that parents should not be told by the federal government that their children must wear masks. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has been one of the most outspoken and prominent public officials in opposition to mask mandates. In an August statement, Corcoran said Florida would “fight to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children.”
The same day that the Education Department notified Florida about the civil rights probe, the 1st District Court of Appeal effectively reinstated the state’s restrictions on local mask mandates after a different judge had previously halted enforcement of the state’s policy.
The Biden administration is intensifying and diversifying its efforts to control the pandemic.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden renewed his push to get teachers vaccinated and to ramp up coronavirus testing in schools. His plan includes elements that could mandate such measures even in some states that don’t currently require them. In a speech, Biden said that vaccine mandates work and that they are supported by school officials and unions.
Biden’s Education Department also announced a new grant program designed to help offset financial penalties on districts that defy state bans on mitigation measures like masks; Corcoran said in August that his agency had withheld the monthly salaries from school board members in two Florida counties that have required universal masking.