President Joe Biden on Wednesday said he has directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to support local school districts and administrators who wish to implement mask mandates and other public safety measures in the classroom.
“This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators,” Biden said at a news conference. “Like I’ve said before, if you’re not going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way.”
Biden’s request is his latest attempt to limit the potential damage of anti-mask policies enacted by some Republican governors and legislatures as the delta variant of the coronavirus tears through the South. The president ripped into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month, telling them to “please help” or “get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing.”
One Texas school district has been forced to get creative, writing masks into the students’ dress code in order to sidestep Abbott’s ban on face-covering requirements. Abbott himself tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday.
“Unfortunately, as you have seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures, like children wearing masks in school, into political disputes for their own political gain. Some are even trying to take power away from local educators by banning masks in school,” Biden said Wednesday.
He added: “They’re setting a dangerous tone.”
The Education Department could use decades-old civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, to bolster its legal attacks, according to The New York Times.
Cardona hinted earlier this month that his department might wade into the mask-mandate fray when he said he was worried about “adult actions getting in the way of schools safely reopening.”
“Let our educators educate. Let our leaders — school leaders — lead, and we can get our schools reopened safely,” Cardona said.
The Food and Drug Administration has not yet given health care providers the green light to vaccinate children younger than 12. Weighing the benefit of in-person learning with the risks of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended earlier this month that classes resume in person, but with students in masks.
The guidance has enflamed tensions in some communities. Last week, a school board meeting in Franklin, Tennessee, turned frenzied when a group of parents began shouting, “No more masks!” and threatening the medical professionals who were present.
Biden specifically condemned the spectacle on Wednesday, saying, “Intimidation and threats seen across the country are wrong. They’re unacceptable.”
As has become his custom of late, Biden delivered his remarks in the White House East Room, alone save for Secret Service agents and about 20 members of the press corps. He spoke for 16 minutes, reading off a teleprompter directly ahead of him just below the television camera, and left without taking shouted questions from reporters about the Afghanistan evacuation.
S.V. Date contributed reporting.