WASHINGTON, D.C. (WSMV) — The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced Monday that it will be opening an investigation into five states, including Tennessee.

The investigation will look into whether "statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education," and follows an executive order signed by Governor Bill Lee that allows parents to opt their child out of school mask mandates. 

The OCR sent letters to chief state school offices in Tennessee, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah saying it's concerned that these mask restrictions at schools "may be preventing schools…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."

Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona previously sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Commissioner of Education Dr. Penny Schwinn stating that the governor's recent executive order may be infringing on federal laws.

Biden Education Sec. letter to Governor Lee says opt-out order may 'infringe' on federal law

On Aug. 18, President Joe Biden stated that he wanted all students to have "the opportunity to participate and remain in full-time, in-person learning safely, without compromising their health or the health of their families."

News4 contacted Gov. Bill Lee’s office and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Both responded, saying they are “reviewing the letter" from the OCR. 

Dr. Shanique Nixon, a parent who recently pulled her child with underlying medical conditions out of Sumner County Schools when COVID cases went up with no mask mandate in the district, said she is happy to hear about the investigation.

“I think it’s going to take some decisions higher up to really push and change the narrative on this,” Nixon said. “This should not be a political issue. This is a health issue and I’m just really happy to hear that there is some effort to try and keep things safe for the most vulnerable in our population and that’s our children.”


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