The Biden Education Department has opened “civil rights” investigations into five states — Iowa, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee — that have banned school districts from requiring masks. This is a naked effort to back Democrats and teachers’ unions in their dispute with some Republican governors over mask wearing, a dispute that has nothing to do with civil rights.
Federal civil rights law requires that students with disabilities be given a free and appropriate education. But this obligation should not be construed to require an entirely risk-free education for students with disabilities.
The covid-related risk of serious health problems for children, including those with disabilities, is very small. For children who are vaccinated, it is minuscule. For vaccinated children in settings where social distancing measures are followed, it is probably all but non-existent.
Thus, mask wearing is not required to provide an appropriate education to students with disabilities. It’s not even required to provide them with an education that carries virtually no risk of becoming seriously ill.
There are also legitimate questions about whether masks lower the risk of infection. I believe they do to some degree, but the evidence is not conclusive. It’s even less clear that masks provide protection on top of that obtained by social distancing.
The CDC claims that masks are among the most effective tools to prevent the spread of the virus. It recommends universal masking in schools.
The CDC has said lots of things during the pandemic. Some have turned out to be correct, some have not. Others remain neither confirmed nor disproven.
State and local decisionmakers should take the CDC’s recommendation into account. But in the end it should be up to these decisionmakers to decide whether, on balance, the incremental health benefit, if any, from mask wearing at school is worth the downside of making kids wear masks all day, often against the desire of their parents.
Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions the decisionmakers are at odds. That’s a political dispute with health ramifications maybe, but no civil rights implications.
The federal government should stay out of it, but Team Biden won’t. It is beholden to the teachers’ unions and they want masks — to protect themselves, not to protect disabled students.