The Biden administration put Oklahoma on notice Wednesday that a new state prohibition on mask mandates in schools may violate individual student rights and local school districts’ authority to protect students and employees.
Speaking from the White House on Wednesday afternoon, President Joe Biden said he had directed U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to use his oversight authority or even take legal action “if appropriate.”
Biden said the country needs collaboration in the fight against COVID-19, not politicians capitalizing on the public health crisis by turning mitigation measures into “political disputes for their own political gain.”
He added: “We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”
On Wednesday, Cardona said he sent communications to Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah concerning their new state-level prohibitions on universal mask mandates by schools.
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“Oklahoma’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law,” Cardona wrote in the letter sent to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. “This State level action against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies.”
The Tulsa World obtained a copy of the letter through a request under the Oklahoma Open Records Act to the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
About 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Stitt’s spokesman Charlie Hannema said he had no comment because “the governor hasn’t seen the letter yet.”
Hofmeister, who had seen the letter, commented: “I think Ronald Reagan was right when he said those closest to the problem are the ones best suited to address it.
“School districts deserve the autonomy to enact policies that protect our schoolchildren and staff from COVID exposure and infection. For schools to remain open for in-person instruction, the to-do list is clear: Get vaccinated and wear a mask.”
Cardona wrote that the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 “explicitly gives” local school districts that receive stimulus funds “discretion to use (those) funds for implementing indoor masking policies or other policies aligned with CDC guidance … for the reopening and operation of school facilities to effectively maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff.”
He also noted that several Oklahoma schools have done their best to require indoor masking “despite the State-level prohibitions. The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”
Cardona also explained what authority the U.S. Department of Education has in the matter in a Wednesday post to the U.S. Department of Education’s official blog.
“We will take any necessary action to ensure that nothing interferes with a school district’s discretion to make these critical investments, including state policies from a Governor, state legislature, state education agency, or other officials. This also includes paying the full salaries of educators (including superintendents) and school board members if their state moves to withhold their salary or levy financial penalties on their schools,” Cardona wrote in the blog.
He specifically cited several avenues for federal intervention.
Besides oversight of each state’s use of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, Cardona mentioned the investigations and enforcement actions that can be taken on complaints made on behalf of students by parents, guardians or others to the USDE’s Office for Civil Rights.
“I want to emphasize this Department’s commitment to protecting the rights of every student in the nation. The Department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally,” Cardona wrote.
Next, along with sending states funding for students with disabilities, the USDE Office of Special Education Programs monitors each state’s implementation of federal special education law, which requires that those with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education.
“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 said.
Video: Tulsa Health Department’s executive director gives a COVID-19 update as schools prepare to open