The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the Texas Education Agency on Tuesday in response to guidance that prohibits school leaders from requiring students and staff to wear masks.
“[The] investigation will focus on whether, in light of this policy, students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law,” Suzanne Goldberg, acting assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.
Specifically, the investigation will focus on whether the state’s ban on mask requirements flouts part of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees students with disabilities the right to receive education in a regular educational environment, alongside their peers without disabilities.
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News of the investigation into Texas broke as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was in the midst of his back-to-school bus tour across the Midwest.
“I wanted to be very clear that we are going to protect students,” he told U.S. News in an exclusive interview. “We are going to stand on the side of students, on the side of educators who are protecting students.”
The probe mirrors five other investigations the civil rights office opened last month examining whether bans on mask mandates in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah discriminate against students with disabilities – a move that marked the most aggressive action by the Education Department in its efforts to support local school leaders trying to return students to school safely amid a surging pandemic.
When the civil rights office announced the first five investigations, department officials underscored that it was closely watching other Republican-controlled states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida and Texas – all of which have executive orders or state laws prohibiting school districts from mandating masks. They said that the civil rights office had not yet opened investigations into those states because their bans on mask requirements are not currently being enforced due to court orders or other state actions – though that could change if they prevent local school leaders from implementing risk-mitigation strategies they deem necessary.
For Texas, that time is now, and it comes as children in the U.S. – the majority of whom aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated – start school against the backdrop of the highly contagious delta variant that continues to increase infection, transmission, hospitalization and death rates across the country. Though it remains rare for children to develop severe infections or be hospitalized, the impact on kids has been most severe in states and districts that have mask-optional policies and where vaccination rates remain low.
That’s the case in Texas, where roughly as many children have been infected with COVID-19 in the last month since school opened as the entire 2020-21 school year – about 127,000 students, or 2.4% of the state’s K-12 enrollment.
Cardona said he didn’t have an update on the ongoing investigation announced last month.
“We are going to investigate and we will see where that goes,” he says. “But the message is out there that we will not allow for states to punish leaders who are trying to protect children.”