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.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- Vaccine rules . . . and businesses. Private companies are increasingly mandating coronavirus vaccines for employees, with varying approaches. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. On Aug. 11, California announced that it would require teachers and staff of both public and private schools to be vaccinated or face regular testing, the first state in the nation to do so. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York. On Aug. 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced that proof of vaccination would be required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, becoming the first U.S. city to require vaccines for a broad range of activities. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
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.