Education Secretary Will Defeat Red State Govs' Anti-Mask F*ckery With Critical Race Theory
Last week, Joe Biden directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to use "all of his oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate" to make sure state governors and lawmakers couldn't interfere with schools trying to keep kids safe from the coronavirus. Cardona got right to work on that, and outlined his strategy for helping schools that decide to require masks, even in states that have banned local and school authorities from mandating masks. In a post on the Education Department's blog, Cardona said he wasn't about to let state leaders put politics ahead of kids' health:
These states are needlessly placing students, families, and educators at risk. Yet in each of these states, there are also educators and others who are taking steps to protect the health and safety of their school communities.
Cardona said he would have the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights investigate whether such state mask mandate bans "may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally." In addition, he said, the Office of Special Education Programs can monitor whether states are providing a "free, appropriate public education" to students with disabilities, as federal law requires. If kids are placed at heightened risk, that's not very equal education.
Bureaucracy can be kind of wonderful when it's used to keep kids and families safe.
The Washington Post's Greg Sargent explains why this might be a matter for the Ed Department's Civil Rights office to get involved:
The idea here is that the suspension of in-person learning has disproportionately harmed the learning of vulnerable students, such as students of color. If a GOP governor's ban on mask mandates is — by making schools less safe — preventing them from resuming in-person learning, that could be subject to investigation.
How would this work? An Education Department official tells me the relevant laws are a federal statute guaranteeing a right to free public education, and the Civil Rights Act's prohibition against racial discrimination or exclusion by any program benefiting from federal funds.
And states had better not try to pull a Dan Patrick and claim that it's not discriminatory, just a matter of Black folks not getting vaccinated, because a new survey of vaccination rates shows that Black vaccination rates are actually ahead of the national average of 69 percent: 76 percent of Black respondents said they've been vaccinated, while only 66 percent of White people had. The least-vaccinated category was "Republicans who support Trump over the party" at 46 percent (Republicans who said they supported the party more than Trump did considerably better, at 62 percent).
In addition to the civil rights enforcement option, Cardona said he's sent letters to Texas, Florida, and six other states reminding them that the education funding they've accepted from the American Rescue Plan came with a few strings, like the requirement that school districts are required to "adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services." If governors or state legislatures try to punish school districts that are simply following the requirements of that funding by adopting "science-based strategies" to reopen, well then, says Cardona, the Education Department will step in to help those districts.
We will take any necessary action to ensure that nothing interferes with a school district's discretion to make these critical investments, including state policies from a Governor, state legislature, state education agency, or other officials. This also includes paying the full salaries of educators (including superintendents) and school board members if their state moves to withhold their salary or levy financial penalties on their schools.
As Sargent notes, five of Florida's largest school districts are defying Gov. Ron DeSantis's executive order, which demands that school mask orders allow parents to opt out, basically making them suggestions, not orders. Those districts alone, Alachua County Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon told Sargent,
cover "over one third of the entire student population in Florida," adding that all together, "we're a little more than a million students."
So that's a lot of defiance, and DeSantis's threats to withhold funding will be less frightening with Cardona's promise that he'll back them up.
The Delta variant of the virus, which is twice as infectious as the prior strains, has made it all the more important to protect kids in schools. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, says that Delta is so much worse that "it's almost like we have a new pandemic now. [...] Everything we thought we knew about covid-19 has to be revised."
That increased transmissibility, combined with many states stepping back from or even forbidding the practices that led to extremely low infection rates in schools last year, has led to a hell of a lot of outbreaks in schools this month already, as the District Administration newsletter notes.
In-school transmission rates were low to non-existent during 2020-21 when most schools were taking aggressive safety precautions.
In some places, schools are shifting back to online and remote learning. Elsewhere, such as in Texas, districts have shut down completely because schools are not required to make up days missed due to COVID.
As of yesterday, the newsletter lists school districts in at least 11 states that have had to either switch to remote learning or shut down temporarily due to COVID outbreaks.
Masking and social distancing work, as do vaccinations. Sure would be nice if red states would do even half as much to protect their kids from the pandemic as they have to make sure the little darlings never learn anything about systemic racism.
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