The Biden administration's Education Department on Monday launched civil rights investigations into five states that have made it illegal for schools to mandate masks, alleging that the governors are creating an unsafe learning environment for students with disabilities at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
It's an aggressive new legal strategy from the Biden administration to challenge Republican governors who insist indoor mask mandates don't work.
"We're advocating for local decision-making with health experts as partners to reopen schools," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told ABC News Senior National Correspondent Terry Moran on ABC News Live's "The Breakdown."
"We know that's what works, and we have politics getting in the way of things," Cardona added. "Unfortunately, students are ending up not going to school because their parents don't feel comfortable sending them to school. We feel that's a violation and feel that all students should have access to in-person learning across the country in a manner that's safe."
The Education Department investigations target Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. The Education Department said it is not including Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona at this time "because those states' bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that schools are generally safe if students and staff universally wear masks. School districts that struggled with COVID-19 outbreaks this year -- oftentimes sending thousands of kids home to quarantine -- often did not require masks, despite high cases in the surrounding community.
Still, many GOP politicians have argued that wearing a mask should be up to the parents and enacted laws prohibiting or restricting mandates. In Utah, for example, it's illegal for schools to mandate masks although the local county health department can order it. Even then, the local legislature can overturn the health department's order, essentially leaving the decision in the hands of politicians.
Critics of the approach said the law makes it difficult for schools to ensure students are safe. But Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said the process in Utah is working and that they don't believe the Education Department probe applies.
"While we appreciate (the Education Department's) efforts to protect children, specifically students with disabilities, we think they have unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur," Dickson said in a statement. "State law places these decisions at the local level with local health departments and locally elected officials. We have witnessed the process occurring in several counties and currently Salt Lake City and Grand County School districts have indoor mask mandates in place."
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold the salaries of school board members who defied him, although the Biden administration has urged those schools to use federal relief money if that happens.
Cardona insisted the latest announcement on investigating states is not political but a matter of public health.
"I want to work with Gov. DeSantis and every other governor to do what's right for our students," Cardona said. "The students in Florida are my students too. At the end of the day I'm going to trust medical doctors and health experts who do this for a living to guide our safe school reopening."
Top education officials in Oklahoma and South Carolina are voicing support for the Biden administration's investigation into schools and masks in their states.
Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma's state superintendent of schools, said in a statement Monday that her state's law prohibiting mask requirements "is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person."
Likewise, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said in a statement that she has repeatedly "implored" the legislature to reconsider the anti-mask law "and allow local school boards to make decisions affecting the health and well-being of the students they serve."
The education departments in Iowa and Tennessee said they were still reviewing Cardona's letter.