WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that it is investigating Utah and four other Republican-led states with universal mask bans, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.
The department's Office for Civil Rights sent letters to education chiefs in Utah, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Those states have barred schools from requiring masks among students and staff, a move that the department says could prevent some students from safely attending school.
In an interview with FOX 13 on Monday, Governor Spencer Cox would not specifically discuss the investigation. However, he said he would be meeting with legislative leadership to discuss the surge in COVID-19 cases and the fact that hospitals in Utah are now over-capacity.
"Hopefully we can come to some agreement on how best to slow the spread of this virus because our hospitals are in trouble," the governor said.
Asked if he would talk to legislative leadership about a school mask requirement, the governor did not appear to rule out some kind of action.
"We’ll be talking about all of the options. My job with the legislature right now is to lay out all of the options that are out there," he told FOX 13. "There are different ideas about that. The legislature has made it clear there is no interest in a statewide mask mandate. The question is, what happen is when there’s mass spread in a school? What happens once that that takes off in a school? Is there a time, a short time, when masks would be possible until that goes back down? Or is that off the table as well?"
The investigation marks a sharp escalation in the Biden administration's battle with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal choice. President Joe Biden last week asked Cardona to explore possible legal action, prompting the department to examine whether the policies could amount to civil rights violations.
The state policies conflict with guidance from the from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom. If the investigations determine that the state mask bans have discriminated against students with disabilities, it could lead to sanctions including a loss of federal education funding.
FOX 13 reported last week that an investigation was possible over the state's laws restricting masks in Utah.
The legislature has both banned K-12 mask mandates and allowed for a way it can happen. A school or district cannot just impose a mandate. Instead, a local health department can issue one and have it affirmed or overturned by a county council or commission.
Grand County's commission allowed for a K-6 mask mandate for children who cannot be vaccinated. The Salt Lake County Health Department issued one, but it was overturned by the Salt Lake County Council. Summit County has said it will only impose one if COVID-19 cases in schools exceed 2%.
"The federal government’s overreach is astounding. Not only is there a lack of understanding regarding Utah’s law, the federal government is unnecessarily politicizing health, which is neither helpful nor welcomed," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told FOX 13 in a statement. "In Utah, we are prioritizing students’ health and education while honoring individual choice. Our state does not have a ban on masks. Rather we have a process in place that allows for more public involvement and decisions to be made at the local level, which local jurisdictions are already utilizing to issue mask requirements."
Dr. Sydnee Dickson, the superintendent of public instruction for the Utah State Board of Education, also pushed back on the feds.
"While we appreciate OCR’s efforts to protect children, specifically students with disabilities, we think they have unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur. State law places these decisions at the local level with local health departments and locally elected officials," she said in a statement. "We have witnessed the process occurring in several counties and currently Salt Lake City and Grand County School districts have indoor mask mandates in place. Our schools continue to utilize the many health and safety protocols developed and implemented last year to keep our students learning in person."