SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Utah’s top education official says the U.S. Education Department is “unfairly” defining the state’s limits on mask mandates. This comes after the department announced it is launching a civil rights investigation against Utah and four other Republican-led states over their laws prohibiting schools from enacting masking requirements.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, is reviewing whether statewide laws in Utah and the four other states discriminate against students with disabilities, who are at a greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19, by preventing them from safely accessing in-person learning.

“While we appreciate OCR’s efforts to protect children, specifically students with disabilities, we think they have unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur. 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,” says State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson. “Our schools continue to utilize the many health and safety protocols developed and implemented last year to keep our students learning in person.”

Current Utah law says local health departments can issue mask mandates for schools in conjunction with elected county officials. The mandate could stand for 30 days before the county council or commission would need to approve that moving forward. In early August, after Salt Lake County Health Department executive director Dr. Angela Dunn proposed requiring masks for school children under the age of 12, county officials overturned it on a 6-3 vote. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall recently issued an emergency order requiring K-12 students, faculty, and visitors to wear masks while in schools.

Dickson references a March 2021 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying it “heralded Utah’s efforts in keeping students safe amid COVID-19 concerns.” The report says “mask adherence was high” when the study was conducted in Salt Lake County elementary schools from Dec. 3, 2020, to Jan. 31, 2021. The CDC says the findings of the report show “elementary schools can be opened safely with minimal in-school transmission when critical prevention strategies including mask use are implemented.” Additionally, the CDC report found two of the five school-associated COVID-19 transmission events occurred because of poor mask use.

The OCR will now review whether Utah and the other states under investigation are in compliance with a federal law protecting students with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability. It will also determine if the statewide bans on indoor masking violate the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including schools.

“We look forward to working with OCR to clarify Utah’s position on the issue. We continue to urge districts and charters to work with their local public health care professionals to continue providing Utah students and public school staff with safe and effective schools,” Dickson says.

For more on the OCR investigation, click here.