CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Iowa is one of five states being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights over a ban on mask mandates.
The department announced Monday afternoon that Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah received letters outlining how those bans prevent school districts from implementing health and safety policies.
The department states the ban “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."
In May, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law banning school districts from issuing mask mandates.
Drake University professor Denise Hill told Iowa's News Now schools, nationwide, must follow federal disability laws in order to receive federal funding related to compliance.
"If, in fact, it's found that the state law is violating those laws and the state continues to do so, they will jeopardize the potential receipt of those federal funds," Hill said.
Hill added it's atypical for state governments to control local jurisdictions.
"States, Iowa is one of them, have what's called 'Home Rule Authority,' they recognize that the people that are closest to the local level government," she added. "So, they're in the best position to decide what should be done in their jurisdiction in terms of protecting them."
The U.S. Department of Education's investigation comes at the same time the Linn County Board of Health is asking local school districts to strongly consider mask mandates as COVID-19 cases rise.
"I'm in favor of following the science," Linn County supervisor and Board of Health member Stacey Walker said.
The letter cites House File 847, which states, school authorities may use facial covering when it is “necessary for a specific extracurricular or instructional purpose.” Walker and the board is encouraging districts to explore its legal avenues to enforce mask mandates.
"There seems to be a caveat in that law to allow school boards to require mask for... when it is necessary for a specific extracurricular or instructional purpose," Walker added.
The Linn County Board of Health is hosting a media briefing on Wednesday, Sept. 1 at 10 a.m. in the formal board room of the Linn County Public Service Center, 935 2nd St. SW, Cedar Rapids, to provide an update and respond to questions about the Linn County Board of Health’s letter to school districts urging use of face coverings in schools.
Four other states. Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona, are not being investigated because those indoor masking bans are not being enforced.