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Biden administration opens investigation into Tennessee policy on student masks

Jon Styf
The Center Square

The U.S. Department of Education informed the Tennessee Department of Education on Monday it would be investigating whether the state’s stance on masks in schools is violating the rights of disabled students.
The investigation, from the department’s Office of Civil Rights, centers around an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee that allows parents to opt out of school mask mandates. Shelby County sued the governor last week regarding the order.
“OCR’s investigation will focus on whether, in light of this policy, students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law,” read a letter sent to TDOE by Suzanne Goldberg, OCR’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights.
Letters also went out Monday to education departments in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah.
“The Department has heard from parents from across the country – particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions – about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release. “It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve.
“The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”
Lee’s press secretary, Casey Black, said the governor’s office was reviewing the letter. TDOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cardona sent a letter to Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn almost two weeks ago, stating Lee’s executive order appeared to interfere with requirements in the American Rescue Plan Act regarding school districts having an effective health and safety plan.
The OCR said its investigation will look at the state’s ability to follow Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects students with a disability from being discriminated against, with the executive order in place.
The USDOE’s news release on the investigations, which will be conducted by regional OCR offices, cites an Aug. 18 memo from President Joe Biden asking the department to “assess all available tools in taking action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law” to protect all students in an attempt to return to a safe in-person school environment.
“Our priority must be the safety of students, families, educators, and staff in our school communities,” Biden’s letter said. “Nothing should interfere with this goal.”
Lee responded to the USDOE’s initial letter by saying, “Regarding the Biden Administration letter: Parents know better than the government what’s best for their children.”


  1. Podunk on August 30, 2021 at 6:59 pm

    Biden can try, but there are mandates, not laws so therefore no law has been broken. There are mandates, but even those are only mildly enforced. He can investigate all he wants but in the end the state’s have their own rights to mandate what, when, and where. The Gov’t cannot legally step in because they are only mandates and not laws.

    • Bobo on August 30, 2021 at 8:35 pm

      TY oh bright one

    • Jonesy on August 30, 2021 at 9:40 pm

      I guess Podunk didn’t read the article, and/or doesn’t understand the ADA

    • InkedOneTn on August 30, 2021 at 10:20 pm

      90% of Tennessee money comes from the federal government….Washington needs to with draw ALL FEDERAL FUNDS…. then YOU can fund the damn school systems….actions have reprucissions….

  2. Jonesy on August 30, 2021 at 9:41 pm

    I guess Podunk didn’t read the article, and/or doesn’t understand the ADA

  3. Darlene Calistri on August 31, 2021 at 9:25 am

    Lee is wrong snd should not be not mandating masks and protecting our children. What is the matter with him. Does he not like children? Does he hate them so much that he wants to destroy them! Why is Lee so vindictive? If the CDC says masks should be used then it should be used for our protection. Lee does not like people and wants to have the power to override the President of the USA and the CDC. We should listen to Dr Schaffner from Vanderbilt and the CDC. Politics has no input in medical decisions. Lee would you call your political cronies and ask them what to do if your wife or mother or dad was dying? Would you listen to your doctor? Do you have a medical degree? I don’t think so. You are doing a disservice to all your constituents and future constituents!

  4. Albert Fuqua on August 31, 2021 at 10:49 am

    the governor is wrong on his policy on schools and this viris. it questionable that school are open at all with the new viris and arguing about mask is crazy and criminal. Albert Fuqua

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