The federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has opened an investigation into the push by Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and his team to block the imposition of mask mandates in schools. DeSantis has stuck by this opposition to mask mandates even as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have surged in his state, with no age group — including children — somehow automatically immune from the potentially deadly effects of the pathogen. The basis for the federal investigation is answering the question of whether DeSantis’s push against school mask mandates violates the civil rights of medically vulnerable children who, with current circumstances in place, cannot safely attend school without mask-wearing mandates.
Officials at the Education Department are “concerned” that DeSantis’s anti-mask policy may be “preventing schools in Florida from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal education opportunity to students with disabilities who are at a heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19,” as explained by the Education Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg. Addressing Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Goldberg added as follows:
‘In this investigation, particular attention will be given to whether the Florida Department of Education may be preventing schools from making individualized assessment about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person, consistent with their right to receive a free appropriate public education and to be free from discrimination based on their disability.’
The same office within the Education Department previously opened investigations of five other GOP-led states where officials have sought to block the imposition of mask mandates in schools, but at that time, Florida had been blocked via court order from enforcing DeSantis’s attempt at enacting a similar ban on mandates. On Friday, that changed with a decision by an appeals court in Florida to allow authorities to enforce DeSantis’s ban on school mask mandates as legal challenges continue.
Across the state, more than a dozen counties have put mandates to wear face masks at school in place, and Florida authorities have already started withholding funding from two of these districts that equals the salaries of local education officials. The Biden administration, however, has “announced the creation of a new grant designed specifically to cover any fines or withholding of funds that school districts face because of their mask rules,” as the Miami Herald reports. Biden has also personally called out Republican governors like DeSantis, saying that he’s “so disappointed that particularly some of the Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids,” pointedly adding that “we’re playing for real here” and “this isn’t a game.”