Investigation: Florida ban on mask mandates may violate civil rights of disabled students

Florida Gov. DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates is now at the center of a federal civil rights investigation.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said Friday it is opening the investigation to determine whether the Florida Department of Education’s directive preventing school districts from requiring students and staff to wear face coverings also prevents school districts from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

"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," Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg said in a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, regarding the investigation.

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Because the Florida ban on mask mandates is built around the so-called Parents Bill of Rights, parents can opt their child out of any masking requirements imposed by school districts. The OCR says allowing parents to opt their child out prevents school districts from protecting children with disabilities and therefore enables "discrimination based on disability in violation of Section 504 and Title II."

Goldberg’s letter cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing "significant increases the number of new COVID-19 cases … specifically among school-age children," and "distressingly high rates of hospitalization of children with COVID-19."

"National data also show that children with some underlying medical conditions, including those with certain disabilities, are at higher risk than other children for experiencing severe illness from COVID-19."

Read the full letter to Commissioner Corcoran here.