Student Loan Forgiveness

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

(The Center Square) – The U.S. Department of Education informed the Tennessee Department of Education on Monday it would be investigating whether the state’s stance on masks in schools is violating the rights of disabled students.

The investigation, from the department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), centers around an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee that allows parents to opt out of school mask mandates. Shelby County sued the governor last week regarding the order.

“OCR’s investigation will focus on whether, in light of this policy, students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law,” read a letter sent to TDOE by Suzanne Goldberg, OCR’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights.

Letters also went out Monday to education departments in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah.

"The Department has heard from parents from across the country – particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions – about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally," U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release. "It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve.

"The Department will fight to protect every student's right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall."

Lee’s press secretary, Casey Black, said the governor’s office was reviewing the letter. TDOE also said it is reviewing the letter.

"Gov. Bill Lee's administration should immediately suspend its order negating local mask rules in schools until this federal investigation concludes," state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. "All our students, including those who have underlying health conditions, deserve access to safe learning conditions."

Cardona sent a letter to Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn almost two weeks ago, stating Lee's executive order appeared to interfere with requirements in the American Rescue Plan Act regarding school districts having an effective health and safety plan.

The OCR said its investigation will look at the state’s ability to follow Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects students with a disability from being discriminated against, with the executive order in place.

The USDOE's news release on the investigations, which will be conducted by regional OCR offices, cites an Aug. 18 memo from President Joe Biden asking the department to "assess all available tools in taking action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law" to protect all students in an attempt to return to a safe in-person school environment.

“Our priority must be the safety of students, families, educators, and staff in our school communities,” Biden’s letter said. “Nothing should interfere with this goal.”

Lee responded to the USDOE's initial letter by saying, "Regarding the Biden Administration letter: Parents know better than the government what’s best for their children."