The Biden administration will use a federal civil rights office to deter states from banning masks in classrooms.

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Erica L. Green

The secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, speaking with Mia Arias, 10, during a visit to a New York elementary school on Tuesday.
The secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, speaking with Mia Arias, 10, during a visit to a New York elementary school on Tuesday.Credit...Brittainy Newman/Associated Press

President Biden, escalating his fight with Republican governors who are blocking local school districts from requiring masks to protect against the coronavirus, said Wednesday that his Education Department would use its broad powers — including taking possible legal action — to deter states from barring universal masking in classrooms.

Mr. Biden said he had directed Miguel Cardona, his education secretary, “to take additional steps to protect our children,” including against governors who he said are “setting a dangerous tone” in issuing executive orders banning mask mandates and threatening to penalize school officials who defy them.

“Unfortunately, as you’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain,” Mr. Biden said in remarks from the East Room of the White House, adding, “We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”

The federal intervention comes as school districts face the monumental task of trying to get students back to in-person learning and reverse the devastating setbacks experienced by a range of students. Mr. Biden’s move puts the federal government at the center of bitter local debates over how to mitigate against the virus in schools, just as the highly infectious Delta variant is fueling a spike in pediatric cases.

In an interview on Wednesday, Dr. Cardona said that like the president, he was “appalled that there are adults who are blind to their blindness, that there are people who are putting policies in place that are putting students and staff at risk.”

“At the end of the day,” he said, “we shouldn’t be having this conversation. What we’re dealing with now is negligence.”

Dr. Cardona said he would deploy the Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm to investigate states that block universal masking. The move marks a major turning point in the Biden administration’s effort to get as many students as possible back to in-person schooling this fall.

The nation’s most vulnerable students, namely students with disabilities, low-income students and students of color, have suffered the deepest setbacks since districts pivoted to remote learning in March 2020, and their disproportionate disengagement has long drawn concern from education leaders and civil rights watchdogs.

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, students are entitled to a free, appropriate public education, known as FAPE, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin.

If state policies and actions rise to potential violations of students’ civil rights, the department could initiate its own investigations into districts and investigate complaints made by parents and advocates who argue that prohibiting mask mandates could deny students’ right to education by putting them in harm’s way in school.

A report released by the department’s civil rights office this summer provided a snapshot of the suffering students have experienced. It noted that the pandemic challenges were particularly acute for students with disabilities, whose educational success relies on classroom time and hands-on services.

“I’ve heard those parents saying, ‘Miguel, because of these policies, my child cannot access their school, I would be putting them in harm’s way,’” Dr. Cardona said. “And to me, that goes against a free, appropriate public education. That goes against the fundamental beliefs of educators across the country to protect their students and provide a well-rounded education.”

The administration will also send letters to six states — Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — admonishing governors’ efforts to ban universal masking in schools.

Last week, Dr. Cardona sent similar letters to the governors of Texas and Florida, reminding them that districts had both the funding and the discretion to implement safety measures that the C.D.C. recommended for schools. The secretary also made it clear that he supported district leaders who defied the governors’ orders.