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Oklahoma Among 5 States Facing Federal Civil Rights Inquiries For School Mask Requirement Bans

Tulsa Public Schools

Updated Aug. 30, 2:10 p.m.  

The Education Department announced Monday that it’s investigating five Republican-led states, including Oklahoma, that have banned mask requirements in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights sent letters to education chiefs in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. Those states have barred schools from requiring masks among all students and staff, a move that the department says could prevent some students from safely attending school.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Education confirmed to KWGS on Monday that they had received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

"Regrettably, we are not surprised by this civil rights investigation spurred by passage of a state law prohibiting mask requirements in Oklahoma public schools. That law, Senate Bill 658, is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person. We will fully cooperate with USDE," State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said in a statement.

Hofmeister has come out against the Oklahoma law banning school mask requirements without an emergency declaration from the governor, saying districts must have autonomy to enact policies to protect students and staff from COVID-19. On Sunday, Hofmeister tweeted clear opposition to SB658, seemingly in support of a lawsuit from the Oklahoma State Medical Association and parents challenging it.

"I want to see it stricken in court so schools can fulfill their legal duty to protect and provide all students an opportunity to learn more safely in-person [with the Delta variant]," she said.

A hearing on the lawsuit challenging Oklahoma's law is set for Wednesday.

The Education Department inquiries mark a sharp escalation in the Biden administration’s battle with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal choice. President Joe Biden last week asked Cardona to explore possible legal action, prompting the department to examine whether the policies could amount to civil rights violations.

The state policies conflict with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom.

If the investigations determine that the state mask bans have discriminated against students with disabilities, it could lead to sanctions including a loss of federal education funding.

Gov. Kevin Stitt's office avoided direct comment on the Education Department inquiry.

"Until every American citizen is safely out of Afghanistan, President Biden shouldn’t spend a single second harassing states like Oklahoma for protecting parents’ rights to make health decisions for their kids," Communications Director Carly Atchison said in a statement.

Several Oklahoma public school districts have moved ahead with mask requirements on some level, though many have opt-out provisions.

The department said it has not opened investigations in other states where mask bans have been overturned by courts or are not being enforced, including in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona. But the agency said it is “closely monitoring” those states and is prepared to take action if necessary.

The investigations aim to determine whether state mask bans amount to a violation of students’ right to a free, public education. The department is raising concerns that, in areas with high COVID-19 transmissions, the bans could discriminate against students who are at heightened risk for severe illness.

The department is launching the investigations at its own discretion and not in response to complaints from parents, but Cardona said families have raised concerns that mask bans could put children with disabilities or health conditions at risk.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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