US Education Department opens investigation into Texas' ban on school mask mandates

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights sent a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday detailing how “OCR is concerned that Texas’s restriction on schools and school districts from putting masking requirements in place may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

Tuesday’s letter notes that opening this kind of investigation “in no way implies that OCR has decided whether there has been a violation of a law OCR enforces” and that “during the investigation, OCR is a neutral factfinder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from TEA and other sources as appropriate prior to reaching a determination in this matter.”

The investigation brings a new layer of scrutiny to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates, which a number of school districts are challenging. Abbott, a Republican, signed the order in May and has defended it despite guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending masks for everyone in schools regardless of vaccination status.

In a memo released on Friday, the Texas Education Agency further underscored that, per the governor’s executive order, “school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask.”

“School systems must allow individuals to wear a mask if they choose to do so,” the memo adds. The education agency did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

The Education Department announced last month that it had sent letters to chief state school officials in five states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — notifying them of new directed investigations into whether their state mask restrictions prevented students with disabilities from “safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law.”

At the time, the Office for Civil Rights said it had not opened investigations in states like Texas and Florida “because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions,” the agency noted in its August 30 release, adding that “the Department will continue to closely monitor those states and is prepared to take action if state leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking in schools or if the current court decisions were to be reversed.”

The department has since launched an investigation in Florida as well.