‘It’s simply unacceptable’: U.S. Department of Education launches investigation of Iowa’s ban on mask mandates in schools

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has launched an investigation into whether Iowa’s prohibition on mandating face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 put students at risk in a way that violates their rights.

“Specifically, OCR will examine whether, in light of Iowa’s prohibition on local school districts and schools from requiring use of masks while on school property, the Iowa Department of Education may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the individual educational needs of students with disabilities or otherwise enabling discrimination based on disability in violation of Section 504 and Title II,” Suzanne B. Goldberg, the department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a letter delivered to Iowa Department of Education Secretary Ann Lebo on Monday.

“Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity operated by recipients of federal funds,” OCR’s site explains. “Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability by public entities, regardless of whether they receive federal financial assistance.”

According to Goldberg’s letter, “In this investigation, particular attention will be given to whether the Iowa Department of Education may be preventing schools from making individualized assessments about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person, consistent with their right to receive a free appropriate public education and to be free from discrimination based on their disability.”

Iowa was one of five states to receive such a letter from OCR on Monday. The other states — Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — also ban mask mandates in their schools.

OCR is also monitoring four other states — Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona — which have mask mandate bans, but can’t enforce them because courts have issued temporary injunctions against the bans.

All nine states that prohibit schools from creating mask mandates are led by Republican governors. All the states are experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission, according to CDC data.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced the OCR investigations in a written statement on Monday, saying his department “has heard from parents from across the country – particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions – about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally.”

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Cardona said. “The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”

Two weeks ago, Cardona sent a letter to Gov. Reynolds and Lebo, informing them that Iowa’s prohibition against masks in schools was being reviewed.

The safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators, and that families have confidence in that their schools are doing everything possible to keep students healthy. Iowa’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) put these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educations as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law. [emphasis in the original]

Reynolds responded to that letter with a written statement that attacked the Biden administration’s policies on U.S./Mexico border crossings, Afghanistan and the economy, but did not mention either masks or schools.

We have a crisis at the border, a disaster in Afghanistan, and inflation is soaring. President Biden is failing on each of these issues, yet he is now launching an attack against governors like myself for trusting our people to decide what’s best for them. The President’s priorities are misplaced. I have had enough, and I know Iowans have too.

I’ll continue to do whatever is necessary to defend and preserve the fundamental rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen.

Reynolds responded to the OCR letter with a similar written statement that mentioned Biden policies on the U.S./Mexico border, Afghanistan and the economy, and again did not mention masks. This time, however, Reynolds did mention schools, claiming that her administration has ensured the safety of students and staff.

Iowa was able to reopen schools safely and responsibly over a year ago. President Biden and his team know this, yet they’ve decided to pick a political fight with a handful of governors to distract from his own failures – Afghanistan, the border, inflation, and more.

As I’ve said all along, I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families. Iowa’s democratically elected legislature endorsed that view as well when they passed a law to support a parent’s right to decide what’s best for their own children. In Iowa, we will continue to support individual liberty over government mandates.

The Reynolds administration is already facing a lawsuit in state court, from Frances Parr of Council Bluffs, who has two children under the age of 12 in schools. That lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court last week, seeks the courts to order Reynolds and Lebo to issue a universal mask mandate in schools until schools create a different way of providing the same level of protection as mandating masks.

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Parr’s lawsuit argues that state officials have a duty to ensure the safety of students.

“Ultimately, parents know the health of their children best — which is why the governor supports parental choice over mandates,” the governor’s spokesperson said in response to Parr’s lawsuit.

If OCR determines the Iowa ban is violating the rights of students with disabilities, the state could face penalties, including the loss of federal education funds.

In a written statement on Monday afternoon, Iowa Democratic Party Disability Caucus Chair Julie Russell-Steuart said, “I am heartened to see that President Biden and the federal Department of Education are taking the crisis in Iowa seriously and I welcome their efforts to hold Governor Reynolds accountable.”

“We have the science and the data to understand how to lessen the risks, and we need to be able to use those tools,” Russell-Steuart continued.

Reynolds said in an interview with KCRG earlier this month that “we can find data on both sides of the issue” regarding whether masks are effective at limiting the spread of COVID-19. This, of course, in not true. All reputable studies of virus transmission have found that wearing face masks limits the spread of COVID-19.

When interviewer Beth Malicki pressed the governor if she really believed there is evidence that masks do not work, Reynolds replied, “Oh, listen, I’m not a scientist, so I have to take — I have to do the best that I can do with the information that I received, but really what I think I need to do is, I don’t know.”