Utah facing federal discrimination investigation linked to in-school mask mandate ban

Photo: U.S. Food & Drug Administration

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Aug. 30, 2021 (Gephardt Daily) — The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened investigations in Utah and four other states to determine whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities.

The thinking is that disabled students are at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and banning a mask mandate prevents those students from safely accessing in-person education.

Besides Utah, the states being investigated for discrimination due to in-school mask mandate bans are Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

“The 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,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve. 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.”

OCR sent letters today to the chief state school officers Utah and the other states outlining how prohibitions of universal indoor masking prevent school districts from implementing health and safety policies that they determine are necessary to protect students from exposure to COVID-19, including those with underlying medical conditions related to their disability.

OCR is concerned that state mask restrictions on schools and school districts “may be preventing schools… 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,” the letter states.

In Utah, the Salt Lake City School District has a mask mandate due to an executive order by Mayor Erin Mendenhall. Grand County schools have a 30-day mask mandate imposed by commissioners, to be evaluated at the end of that period.

OCR has not opened investigations in other states with universal bans — Florida, Texas, Arkansas, or Arizona — because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions.

The Department will continue to closely monitor those states and is prepared to take action if state leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking or if the current court decisions were to be reversed, the OCR statement says.

Read the letter sent to Sydnee Dickson, Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction, below:

Letter to Sydnee Dickon
(Left) Utah Superintendent Education Syndee Dickson. Photo: Utah State Board of Education. (Right) Students in New York wear masks to school. Photo: John Angelillo/UPI
Utah Superintendent Education Syndee Dickson (left), photo: Utah State Board of Education. (Right) Students in New York wear masks to school. Photo: John Angelillo/UP

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