Biden tells education secretary to take on governors blocking masks in schools

States banning mandates could face civil rights probes

During a Wednesday afternoon news conference on the COVID-19 crisis in America, President Joe Biden said he is directing the secretary of education to take action against governors who attempt to block school mask mandates.

“I’m directing the secretary of education to take additional steps to protect our children,” Biden said during the news conference. “This includes using all of his oversight authorities, and legal action if appropriate, against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local schools officials and educators.”

The president said he’s spoken with county school superintendents in states -- including Florida -- who have gone forward with imposing mask requirements in the classroom.

“Last week, I called school superintendents in Florida and Arizona to thank them for doing the right thing and requiring masks in their schools. One of them said, ‘We teach science, so we follow the science.’ The other said they have a guiding principle: Students first,” Biden said.

Biden further said some politicians are trying to “turn public safety measures into political disputes for their own political gain.” He stated that some have used “intimidation and threats,” which he called, ‘unacceptable.”

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In an announcement on its website, the Education Department said policies that ban mask mandates could amount to discrimination if they lead to unsafe conditions that prevent students from attending school. The agency can launch its own investigations into potential violations, and it also responds to civil rights complaints from parents and the public.

“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 said in a statement. He added that states banning mask mandates are “needlessly placing students, families and educators at risk.”

The agency’s Office for Civil Rights can issue a range of sanctions up to a total loss of federal education funding in cases of civil rights violations.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pressed ahead with a ban on school mask requirements, and the state’s education officials are now weighing whether to withhold salaries of some superintendents that have defied the order.

On Wednesday, the Miami-Dade County school district joined Alachua and Broward counties in mandating that students wear masks in schools, with a medical opt-out possible. The vote was 5-2 in favor of adopting a 30-day policy.

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