Mask Wars, Part Two

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Education Briefing

The Biden administration is investigating states that block mask mandates.

Amelia Nierenberg

Sept. 1, 2021Updated 1:31 p.m. ET


The school board in Chandler, Ariz., voted against a mask mandate. “They’re not protecting our kids,” said Sandy Kirby, left. Her son, Nathan, 12, right, is one of the few students who wears a mask in his class.
Credit...Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

On Monday, the U.S. Education Department announced that it was investigating five states over their prohibitions on universal mask mandates in schools.

Those bans may run afoul of civil rights laws that protect students with disabilities from discrimination, federal officials said.

“We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” President Biden said last month, when he outlined his plan to rely on the Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm to deter states from barring universal masking in classrooms.

Governors of nine Republican-led states have tried to ban mask mandates in classrooms, even though the C.D.C. says that students, teachers and staff should wear masks in schools, regardless of their vaccination status.

The Education Department is investigating Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. It has not opened investigations into Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona because litigation or other state action challenging those bans.

What’s next: If the Education Department finds a violation, a state could lose federal funding. Most investigations result in resolution agreements between the agency and the state.

Here are snapshots from a few states.

In Florida, school boards are masking anyway.


Credit...Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

But DeSantis is undeterred. The ban plays well with his conservative base. (Like many other Republican governors, he frames the decision as a question of parental choice.)

On Monday, his administration made good on its threat to withhold funding from local school districts that require masks.

The practical effect remains unclear. The Biden administration has said that any school district that is stripped of state funding because of a backlash to pandemic precautions could use federal stimulus funds to make up the difference.

In Arizona, a governor doubles down.

Gov. Doug Ducey, a business-minded Republican with national ambitions, spent much of the last year fending off conservatives angry about pandemic restrictions. But more recently, he has avidly supported the mask-mandate ban passed by the Republican-run legislature.

Education groups have sued to overturn the ban, and more than a dozen school districts across Arizona have passed mask mandates anyway.

But Ducey is also pledging to withhold millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid from schools that plan to require masks.

“In Arizona, we are pro-parent,” he said at a recent news conference. “I want parents to do what they think is the right thing to do.”

In Texas, a lawsuit over disability rights.

A group of parents of young children with disabilities are suing Gov. Greg Abbott, arguing that his ban prevents their children from being able to attend school safely. All the plaintiffs are under 12, so they cannot get a vaccine yet.

Without a mask mandate in schools, the suit contends, the state has forced parents to decide whether to send a child back to the classroom and “risk her life or to leave the public school system.”

If a disability puts a student at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19, a ban on mask mandates could deny the student “an equal educational opportunity,” civil rights officials said in announcing the federal investigation.

Here is a link to the map, shown above, of mask mandates and guidance for schools in each state.

  • The San Juan Unified School District in California says that 29 of its students are still in Afghanistan, NBC News reports.

  • A great read from Los Angeles Magazine: Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles union, has pushed to keep classrooms closed. Some say she’s a progressive fighter; others consider her an incendiary leader whose gamesmanship during the pandemic has hurt students.

  • A great read from The Times: New York City’s private schools, which can cost $58,000 a year, are trying to tackle racism by challenging white privilege. A sizable group of parents and teachers say the schools have taken it too far — and enforced suffocating and destructive groupthink on students.


Credit...Thomas Fuchs

A new group of apps may help parents teach children about money.

Financial education is sorely needed: Though more states have begun requiring schools to teach financial literacy, young Americans still struggle. A recent analysis deemed the lack of sound financial knowledge among young people and adults to be a “worrisome” barrier to economic advancement.

Step, Copper and Greenlight — three of the most popular apps — combine instruction with debit or credit cards, giving kids real-world experience with investing.

But some new apps may encourage risky behaviors, some critics say.

Investing, in particular, needs close parental oversight. Be prepared to spend time discussing buy-and-sell decisions with your children before signing them up for a trading app.

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