SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Department of Education is warning Utah it could face a federal investigation for laws the legislature passed severely restricting masks in schools.
In a letter to Governor Spencer Cox and Dr. Sydnee Dickson, the superintendent for public instruction for the Utah Board of Education, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona warned of potential violations of the American Rescue Plan Act, which provided billions to states as they combat COVID-19, including money for safe back-to-school plans.
The letter was shared with FOX 13 on Thursday.
"Utah's actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law," Secretary Cardona wrote.
In a post on the U.S. Department of Education's website, he also warned that Utah and other states that have imposed mask bans could face civil rights investigations, arguing that they could discriminate against students and educators. Letters were also sent to Florida, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Possible sanctions for any violation could include pulling millions in federal funds from the state.
"While there was a tone of 'Our eyes are on you,' that’s fine. We’re very transparent about the way we’re spending our funds," Dr. Dickson said in an interview with FOX 13. "We’re spending them appropriately. But at the end of the day, the guidance that came from the federal Department of Education is just that. It’s guidance, it’s recommendations. We have guidance from our own Utah Department of Health."
Governor Cox's office was more pointed in its response.
"The letter from the U.S. Department of Education is extremely unhelpful. Utah has been praised for safely keeping schools open last year and for making better masks available to students and teachers this year," the governor's office said in a statement to FOX 13. "As we continue conversations with legislators, public health leaders, school leaders, parents, and local health departments about the best way to safely return to schools given the unique circumstances in Utah, the last thing we need is threats from out-of-touch bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Education."
Earlier this year, the legislature passed a series of bills that restricted mask mandates. One bill explicitly prohibited mask mandates in schools, unless a county commission or council approves it. That law was put into practice last week when the Salt Lake County Health Department issued a mask mandate for children who cannot be vaccinated. The Salt Lake County Council voted to overturn it. In Grand County, the Southeastern Utah Public Health Department issued a K-6 mandate and the county commission upheld it.
"There may be a misunderstanding, the Legislature does not have a ban on mask mandates in schools," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said in a statement. "We do have a process in place that allows schools to implement mask adherence through S.B. 195 Emergency Response Amendments. Under this law, schools work with local health departments, officials and the public to determine what is best for their individual communities."
But Brad Asay, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Utah said it's not how it's practiced.
"They say that, but then they can overturn it, so it’s a lot of authority that they have that they’ve taken on themselves," he said of the legislature.
Asay said he supported the U.S. Department of Education's warning letter to Utah. He said the teacher's union was exploring options, including a lawsuit over some of the masking restrictions.
Since school started this week, Asay said he has received calls from teachers who are uncomfortable with the lack of masks in schools.
"Teachers are concerned. I’ve been getting the phone calls since we started this week, 'Hey, I don’t feel safe. I’m worried about the younger ones. No one has masks on, I don’t know if the older ones are immunized,'" Asay said. "But many of them are not wearing masks."
Gov. Cox recently authorized spending money so that every school child in the state has access to a KN95 mask to wear if they chose to. Dr. Dickson said she told the U.S. Department of Education that they are following the laws.
"We stated that we’re following the law, and we learned a lot last year and we’re doing everything possible to keep kids in school in person," Dr. Dickson said.
Read the U.S. Education Secretary's letter here: