ORLANDO, Fla. — The Biden administration Friday opened a civil rights investigation into how Florida’s mask mandate ban impacts children with disabilities, fearing those youngsters are at high risk of COVID-19 complications and may not be able to attend school because classmates are not masked.
If Florida’s ban on mask mandates means some children with disabilities cannot go to school that is a violation of federal law, wrote Suzanne Goldberg, acting assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, in a letter to Florida’s education commissioner.
Florida’s ban on mask mandates — already the subject of several legal challenges — aims to let parents, not school districts, decide if their children wear masks at school. The rule has thrilled some parents and angered others.
Thirteen of the state’s 67 school districts, which educate more than half of Florida’s 2.8 million students, defied Gov. Ron DeSantis and imposed mask mandates to help stop the spread of coronavirus on their campuses. Leaders in other districts, however, have said state rules do not allow such mandates.
“Bring it. Florida and @GovRonDeSantis will continue to stand up for parents’ rights against federal government overreach,” tweeted DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw in response to a tweet about the investigation.
The federal agency said Florida’s decision to allow parents to opt out their children from wearing masks “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,” according to the letter sent to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
Florida’s mask mandate ban is spelled out in a Florida Department of Health rule. That rule says children can wear face masks but parents must be able to opt out their children of any mandate. It also says schools cannot separate unmasked children nor exclude them from any school activities.
But protecting the rights of those unmasked children could mean some children with disabilities are prevented from attending from school, the letter said. If they are, that would violate federal laws that protect against discrimination based on disability and guarantee children with disabilities the right to be educated in a “regular education environment” as much as possible, Goldberg wrote.
A lawsuit filed in federal court by some parents makes similar arguments that a ban on mask mandates makes it unsafe for their children to attend school, depriving them of an education.
A judge in South Florida heard arguments in that case Wednesday but has not yet ruled.
The federal agency expects a response from the state within a week, Goldberg said.
“In this investigation, particular attention will be given to whether the Florida Department of Education may be preventing schools from making individualized assessments about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person, consistent with their right to receive a free appropriate public education and to be free from discrimination based on their disability,” she wrote.
A spokesperson for Corcoran and the Florida education department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday evening.
Story by Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel.