President Joe Biden has directed the Education Department to intervene in states — including taking possible legal action — that have moved to bar universal masking in classrooms, reports the New York Times. Biden said he directed Miguel Cardona, his education secretary, “to take additional steps to protect our children,” including against governors who he said are “setting a dangerous tone” in issuing executive orders banning masks mandates and have threatened to penalize school officials who defy them.
Invoking the Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm marks a major turning point in the Biden administration’s effort to get as many students back to in-person schooling. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, students are entitled to a free, appropriate public education, known as FAPE, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin. The department could initiate its own investigations into districts, if state policies and actions rise to potential violations of students’ civil rights. It could also review complaints from parents and advocates who make the case that prohibiting masks mandates is, in effect, a civil rights violation because it could deny a student their right to an education by putting them in harm’s way in school. Such investigations could result in resolution agreements, as many investigations by the office often do, and in the most extreme cases result in revocation of federal funding.