Iowa has been at odds with the federal government about COVID-19 mitigation and Monday that battle ratcheted up again.
The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) opened an investigation into Iowa’s ban on mask mandates. At issue is whether the ban violates the right students with disabilities have to an equal opportunity to participate in school.
“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 from Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, reads.
In addition to Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah also received letters from the OCR. All five states are governed by Republicans.
Passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds after midnight in late May, the ban specifically says schools and school districts cannot require people to wear masks.
The investigation was opened because, nationwide, new COVID cases have been surging among school-age children and in the general population as schools have reopened, the letter says.
Reynolds responded Monday afternoon with a short statement.
“Iowa was able to reopen schools safely and responsibly over a year ago,” it reads. She accused President Joe Biden of playing politics and trying to distract people from other issues. “As I’ve said all along, I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families,” the statement continues.
Since last year, the virus has mutated into the Delta variant, which is more infectious than previous versions of the virus, which means it can spread more rapidly. Vaccination appears to be the best defense, but vaccines for children under 12 are still being tested.
Data compiled by the New York Times show the daily average hospitalization average in Iowa is 601 people, and the average daily cases are 1,080. Hospitalization data comes from the US Department of Health and Human Services; Iowa only updates its COVID data once a week.
Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek issued a statement supporting the investigation.
“We believe students deserve all the protections, safeguards, and stability our local public school districts and communities can offer,” it reads. “A statewide ban on one of the tools to keep them safe makes no sense.”
The US Department of Education letter emphasizes the investigation is not an indication of wrongdoing and the focus will be on neutral factfinding. The OCR will request data and other information from the Iowa Department of Education and use other sources as appropriate.
Heather Doe, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education, told The Des Moines Register the agency received the letter and is reviewing the language.
Julie Russell-Steuart, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Disability Caucus, released a statement in support of the investigation.
“Taking action to protect our most vulnerable Iowans—such as children with a medical condition or those living with a disability—is what Gov. Reynolds must focus on,” it reads. “We have the science and the data to understand how to lessen the risks, and we need to be able to use those tools.”
by Nikoel Hytrek