TAMPA (WFLA) – The U.S. Department of Education has notified Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran that its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an investigation into whether the statewide ban on school mask mandates discriminates against students with disabilities who are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
On Aug. 30, the OCR launched investigations in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, but not Florida because the state rules prohibiting universal masking in schools weren’t being enforced because of a court order.
Suzanne B. Goldberg, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Dept. of Education, sent her four-page letter to Commissioner Corcoran on Friday after Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals reinstated the stay in the school mask lawsuit case, which allows the state to block mask mandates and impose penalties, such as withholding school board member salaries.
“I write to inform you that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is opening a directed investigation into whether the Florida Department of Education may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities as a result of Florida’s policy that requires public schools and school districts to allow parents or legal guardians to opt their child out of mask mandates designed to reduce the risk to students and others of contracting COVID-19 in school,” Goldberg said in her letter. “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 refers to the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for universal masking indoors by all students (2 years and older), staff teachers and visitors at K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“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,” Goldberg said in the letter.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has continued to argue that parents should decide whether or not their children mask up in school.
“No surprise here – the 1st DCA has restored the right of parents to make the best decisions for their children,” Gov. DeSantis tweeted. “I will continue to fight for parents’ rights.”
Often cited by the governor in defense of state rules, Judge John Cooper ruled the Parents’ Bill of Rights does not ban mask mandates. The judge also said the governor exceeded his authority in restricting the rights of local school boards.
Hillsborough County Public Schools has reported a more than 50 percent drop in students in quarantine or isolation because of COVID-19 since adopting a 30-day mask mandate in mid-August.
The school board voted Thursday to extend that mandate an additional 30 days into October.
“Regardless of the outcome of the litigation, our mask mandate with a medical exemption parent opt-out complies with the Emergency Rule issued by the Department of Health and the Parents’ Bill of Rights,” HCPS spokesperson Tanya Arja said in a statement to 8 On Your Side.
Sarasota County Public Schools is the only other district in the bay area of the more than a dozen in Florida to bring back a mask mandate in defiance of the governor and state’s Department of Education.