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U.S. Education Department opens civil rights inquiry into Florida school masks policy

Federal investigation will examine whether students with disabilities are put at "heightened risk" of Covid by state not allowing schools to require masks.
Image: Student enters school
A student arrives for first day in school at the Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami, on Aug. 23, 2021.Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images file

The U.S. Education Department announced Friday that it is opening an investigation to the Florida Department of Education for potentially violating the rights of students with disabilities by preventing school districts from requiring masks.

The department's Office for Civil Rights is leading the probe, a spokesperson said in a statement.

The spokesperson said Florida "may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities" as a result of the state's hardline mask policy, which requires school districts to allow parents or legal guardians to opt their child out of Covid mask mandates.

DeSantis issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools this past July and has threatened consequences for districts that defy the order. In August, the Florida Board of Education voted to sanction the Alachua and Broward county public school districts for imposing mask mandates.

In a letter addressed to Richard Corcoran, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, the federal agency said the 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 cited national data showing that children with some underlying medical conditions, including those with certain disabilities, are at higher risk than other children for developing severe illness from Covid.

Florida has continued to see a rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. August was Florida’s deadliest month since the pandemic began last year, according to Covid-19 data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pediatric hospitalizations have also increased as the delta variant seems to affect children more than previous versions of the coronavirus.