Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in May. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel.
On the heels of a court decision allowing Florida education officials to continue penalizing school districts with strict mask mandates, the U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation to determine if the state’s current mask policies are discriminatory to students with disabilities.
The USDE sent a letter Friday notifying Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran that the investigation will look into the state’s mask policies and possible violations of federal law that protect the rights of people with disabilities.
“In light of these circumstances, OCR (Office for Civil Rights) is concerned that Florida’s policy requiring public schools and school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates may be preventing schools in Florida from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19,” the letter reads.
The letter notes students with underlying health conditions, including those with certain disabilities, are at higher risk of suffering from severe illness from COVID-19 compared to other children. It notes that correct, universal mask-wearing help diminish the transmission of COVID-19.
The letter also highlights an emergency rule established by the Florida Department of Health which states, in part: “Students may wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.”
“The 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,” the letter says.
The U.S. Department of Education previously opened investigations on five other states for similar concerns over mask policies and their impacts on students with disabilities. Florida was not one at the time.
The federal investigation adds another layer to the seemingly ever-growing battle regarding Florida’s mask policies. More than a dozen districts have placed strict mask mandates that only allow students with medical needs to opt out.
But the DeSantis administration thinks parents should decide whether their kids should wear a mask, regardless of the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, and claims that school districts that implement strict mask mandates are breaking the law.
The issue has sparked legal challenges and even resulted in state education officials withholding funds from two local school boards with strict mask policies.
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