The investigations were announced by the department's Office for Civil Rights in letters sent to education chiefs from Iowa, Oklahoma and South Carolina. These states have issued various prohibitions on universal face mask requirements that, according to the office, could prevent students from safe attendance at school.
Miguel Cardona, Education Secretary, accused the states "of putting politics over health and education for the students they took an obligation to serve."
He stated that the department would fight for every student's right of access to in-person learning in safety in a statement.
This is a significant escalation of the Biden administration’s fight with Republican states who believe mask-wearing should only be an individual choice. Last week, President Joe Biden asked Cardona for legal advice. The department was prompted to investigate whether the policies could be considered civil rights violations.
The policies adopted by the states investigated have varied and include restrictions on mask wearing or prohibitions. Iowa's state law prohibits local officials and school boards from mandating the wearing of masks. Although mask mandates in Tennessee are allowed, a recent executive order by Gov. Bill Lee gives families the option to opt out from school mask requirements.
These policies are inconsistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance, which recommends that all students and teachers wear universal masks. In light of rapid spread of COVID-19, the CDC issued this guidance.
The department announced the investigation and stated that it would investigate whether mask-mandate bans are in violation of a federal law protecting students who have disabilities. Students with disabilities, as well as their peers without disabilities, must have equal access to "free and appropriate public education".
The department stated that states that prohibit mask mandates could prevent schools from taking the necessary steps to safeguard students with disabilities and underlying health conditions.
The department stated in its letters that it was concerned about the state's inability to make individualized assessments of mask use in schools so students with disabilities could attend school and take part in school activities.
Education Department investigations usually end in voluntary agreements to remedy the alleged violation. If the inquiry finds that the states have violated civil rights laws the agency can issue severe sanctions, such as the loss of federal education funding.
The department launched the inquiries at its own discretion, and not to parents' complaints. Cardona stated that he had heard from parents who were concerned about state mask policies putting their children at risk.
The investigations were quickly dismissed by some governors.
"Until every American citizen has safely left Afghanistan, President Biden shouldn’t spend any second harassing Oklahoma states for protecting parents’ rights to make medical decisions for their children," stated Carly Atchison (a spokesperson for Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
However, Oklahoma's Education Chief Joy Hofmeister, who stated that mask mandates should be an option in the past, seemed to agree with the Education Department's concerns. Joy Hofmeister, the State Superintendent of Education, stated that the state was "preventing schools from fulfilling the legal obligation to protect and give all students the chance to learn more safely in person."
South Carolina's top education official has also clashed with Governor Scott over mask policies. According to a Monday statement by the state education agency, Superintendent Molly Spearman "repeatedly implored" legislators to reconsider their ban against mask mandates.
According to the agency, it was "particularly sensitive to South Carolina's law's impact on students most at risk and is acutely conscious of the difficult decisions families face regarding a return to in person instruction."
Other states have also banned mask mandates. However, the policies were either overturned by courts or not being enforced in Arizona, Texas, Arkansas, and Florida. Although the Education Department has not launched an investigation in these states, it said that it is closely monitoring and is ready to take appropriate action.
As the nation's schools begin a new school year amid a rise in COVID-19 cases, masks are a significant source of contention. While most states allow schools to decide their policies, some states have adopted strong stances against or for mandates.
California, New York, and Louisiana have all established statewide requirements for masks in schools. Texas, Florida, and other states have resisted the idea.
A judge in Florida ruled Friday that schools can legally require masks. Florida had been one of the most vocal opponents to mask mandates. A Gov. Ron DeSantis had previously barred such mandates. The judge ruled that it was illegal and could not be enforced.
Similar legal issues are facing other states that oppose mask mandates. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against South Carolina last week over its policy of banning mask mandates. The lawsuit was filed by parents and disability rights organizations on behalf of vulnerable students in public schools.
Iowa's mother of twin boys sued the state for banning school mask requirements. Frances Parr claimed that her children were to begin first grade in this school year. However, she now teaches them at home because of concerns about their safety.
Officials in Des Moines, a school district that has been against the state's policy of mask mandates, were encouraged by federal support. Although the district encourages mask-wearing, it is not allowed to require it.
District spokesperson Phil Roeder stated that "if our state government does not change its position as the pandemic persists then hopefully the federal government's legal pathway will allow us to do more to protect our students and staff."