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Legislative Update

President directs U.S. Ed Dept. to use civil rights authority to block statewide bans on face masks in schools

by | Aug 20, 2021 | Federal Issue, Legislative Update Blog, State Issue | 0 comments

Stating that, “a top priority of my administration is to do everything in our power to ensure a safe return to full-time, in-person school for our nation’s children,” President Joe Biden, has issued a memorandum to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona directing him to use all available tools to ensure that governors and other leaders are providing a safe return to in-person learning for the nation’s children.

The August 18 memo notes that while many state and local officials have committed to beginning the new school year “safely and responsibly” by implementing science-based prevention and mitigation strategies promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “[a]t the same time, however, some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning.” 

Vowing that “nothing should interfere” with the goal of ensuring the safety “in our school communities,” the presidential memo directs Secretary Cardona to review state actions and determine whether governors and other officials are providing students with the opportunity “to participate and remain in safe full-time, in-person learning without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities.”

In cases where they are not, according to the memo, Secretary Cardona is directed to pursue “possible enforcement actions” under all applicable laws.

A recent New York Times article suggested the Biden administration would use a federal civil rights office housed within the Department of Education to deter states from banning universal masking in classrooms and to bring enforcement actions.

Speaking earlier on the same day the memo was issued, Secretary Cardona confirmed that the Department of Education would invoke its civil rights enforcement authority to prevent states from imposing universal bans on wearing face masks in classrooms.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is the federal agency with the responsibility of ensuring equal access to education through the enforcement of civil rights. Those rights including those granted under the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and applies to public elementary and secondary schools, among other entities. 

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