5 States Face Civil Rights Investigations By Biden Administration Over School Mask Mandate Bans

Monday's civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Education focused on five states that prohibited school districts from using masks. This was in response to concerns raised by students with disabilities. Republican state officials are clashing with some parents and school leaders, as well as with the Biden administration, over mask-wearing, amid an increase in Covid-19 cases.

Miguel Cardona speaks following Joe Biden's announcement of his nomination as Education... [+] Secretary in Wilmington, Delaware on December 23, 2020. Getty Images

The Key Facts

DOEs Office for Civil Rights launched probes in five Republican-controlled states with either outright bans or tight restrictions on school district mask mandates: Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. According to the department, it is investigating whether these rules discriminate against students with disabilities. This was because they make it more difficult for local school officials and administrators to protect students at risk from Covid-19. The Office for Civil Rights addressed letters to all five states and stated that it was a neutral factfinder, but has not concluded that any violations of federal law occurred. Forbes reached out to the education department under investigation for comment.

Chief Critic

The Utah State Board of Education stated that it believes the Office of Civil Rights unfairly defined Utah to be a state where mask mandates can't occur. Local officials in the state have the ability to still propose mask mandates. However, county politicians have the power over them (schools in Grand County, Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake City require masks).


Molly Spearman South Carolina's superintendent of Education has publicly challenged a state law that prohibits mask mandates. Spearman also voiced her disapproval in a statement to Forbes Monday. She stated that she had repeatedly asked the legislature to review [the law] to allow local school boards to make decisions regarding the health and well being of students they serve.

What to Watch

According to internal policies, the DOE Office for Civil Rights can sometimes resolve allegations by brokering an arrangement with the target of the investigation after it opens a probe. The Associated Press also notes that it can refer allegations to U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute. However, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona seemed to rule out removing funding from local schools earlier in the month, stating that the students are those most affected.


States that have banned mask mandates in the recent past have been criticized by the Biden administration. Cardona stated earlier this month that his department was conducting civil rights investigations in certain states. When Florida threatened to defund salaries of school superintendents who violated state mask mandate bans, Cardona explained that districts could fill the gap using federal Covid-19 relief funds.

Important Quote

Cardona stated Monday that it was unacceptable for state leaders to place politics above the education and health of students they were oath-takingly sworn to serve.

Surprising Fact

Because those policies are currently being challenged by legal action, DOE didn't launch any probes into Florida or Texas. This month, judges blocked the Florida and Arkansas mask mandate bans. Texas also said that it would not enforce its ban due to a host of legal challenges. The department stated that it would continue to monitor these states and may open investigations if they are reinstated.

Important Background

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all school staff and students wear a universal mask last month. The CDC warned that Covid-19 cases rose due to the more contagious delta virus, which is still transmissible by vaccinated individuals. It also noted that coronavirus vaccines are not available for children younger than 12. But mask mandates and other health restrictions have drawn political controversy, and several Republican-controlled states have imposed laws or executive orders preventing school districts from requiring masks on their own, often arguing mask-wearing should be left to the discretion of individual families. These policies have set the stage for state-level disputes: Parents and local officials filed lawsuits in multiple states, often arguing that mask mandates discriminate against students who have disabilities. Some local school districts have also imposed their own mask-wearing policy in violation of state regulations.