Cardona: Mask mandate bans could be civil rights, discrimination issue

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This article was published on K-12 Dive by Naaz Modan on August 18, 2021.

Dive Brief:

  • U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent six additional letters Wednesday to Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah expressing disapproval over the states’ school mask mandate bans. He also suggested in an update on the U.S. Department of Education’s Homeroom blog that the department may investigate the public’s complaints about the lack of school masking as a civil rights and discrimination issue. 
  • Cardona reiterated support for superintendents defying governors’ orders restricting mask mandates, adding the Department of Education will “take any necessary action to ensure that nothing interferes with a school district’s discretion.” That includes paying full salaries of superintendents and board members if their states withhold their salaries or funding for schools. 
  • The announcement comes on the heels of a White House memo encouraging Cardona to look into “possible enforcement actions under applicable laws” for state leaders opposing CDC guidance. President Joe Biden also wrote in the memo that state officials should not be “standing in the way of local leaders” preparing for in-person instruction.

Dive Insight:

The announcement follows similar letters sent to Florida and Texas by Cardona on Friday. In those letters, he suggested governors’ executive orders prohibiting mask mandates in schools could run afoul of the requirements set by the U.S. Department of Education for using federal funds provided under the American Rescue Plan to create plans for a safe return to in-person instruction.

States restricting superintendents’ ability to enforce mask-wearing requirements “may infringe upon a school district’s authority” as they plan for fall, he said.

Earlier this week, despite Cardona’s warning to each state, Florida’s Board of Education voted to take action against two school districts moving forward with mask mandates despite state orders. The Texas Supreme Court also allowed the state government’s ban on mask mandates to stand, overturning local courts’ support for districts requiring face coverings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and White House have both encouraged school districts to adopt universal masking in the return to school this fall as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads and cases surge.

While state and federal governments clash over mask mandates, superintendents have been “hung out to dry,” said Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Dallas Independent School District in Texas, which decided to push forward with face coverings despite the state Supreme Court and Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to ban mask mandates.

“We’re a blue city in a purple county and in a red state,” said Hinojosa during a press conference. “And even as things are evolving, medical doctors and school superintendents get stuck out there on the front line because we get conflicting information.”

Cardona, however, has doubled down on his support for superintendents like Hinojosa who are mandating masks in schools regardless of potential legal and financial ramifications from their states — which could include salary cuts and withheld funding. 

“Let me be clear — this Department will continue to use every tool in our toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators and to maximize in-person learning as the new school year begins,” Cardona wrote in the Homeroom update. “You have my word: We will follow the science. We will do what is best for students.”

In a Wednesday afternoon tweet, Biden wrote, “We will not sit by as Governors try to block or intimidate educators protecting kids against COVID-19. This isn’t about politics. This is about keeping our kids safe and taking on this virus together.”