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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox called a letter from the U.S. Department of Education warning that Utah could face legal action for outlawing school mask mandates meant to protect students against COVID-19 "extremely unhelpful."
President Joe Biden directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to "assess all available tools" that can be used against states that fail to safeguard students amid surging coronavirus cases, according to the Associated Press.
"Some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning," Biden said in an executive order, adding that some states "have gone so far as to try to block school officials" from adopting safety measures.
Cardona sent letters to eight Republican-led states, including Utah, saying the Department of Education has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally.
The Utah Legislature earlier this year passed a ban on face mask requirements in schools, unless a county commission or council approves it.
"Utah's actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district's authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by federal law," Cardona wrote.
Cox called the letter "extremely unhelpful."
"Utah has been praised for safely keeping schools open last year and for making better masks available to students and teachers this year. As we continue conversations with legislators, public health leaders, school leaders, parents, and local health departments about the best way to safely return to schools given the unique circumstances in Utah, the last thing we need is threats from out-of-touch bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Education," he said in a statement.
The Grand County School District, with approval from the nonpartisan Grand County Commission, this week issued a 30-day mask mandate for elementary schools that started Thursday. It is the only county in Utah with a mask mandate.
Despite evidence that masks protect children and adults, this issue has become politicized to the point that elected bodies across the country and in Utah, including the Salt Lake City School Board, worry about retribution if they take a public stand as an organization, she said.
"I've heard personally from a majority of the board's members who've privately told me they want me to issue this order. While acting without an official position of the board is not my preferred path, hanging in the balance of this decision is the health of our children, our community, and our health care workers," Mendenhall said in a statement.
The Salt Lake school board issued a statement thanking Mendenhall for her concern over students during the pandemic, but pointed out that Utah law prohibits the district or a school from issuing a mask mandate.
"We will continue our current practice of strongly encouraging all students, employees, and visitors to wear masks in our schools and buildings," according to the statement.
In a post on the Education Department's website, Cardona said the American Rescue Plan gives school districts the authority to use COVID-19 relief funds for developing strategies and implementing public health protocols for students, teachers and staff.
"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," he wrote.
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee also blasted Cardona and Biden over the letter.
"Secretary Cardona and President Biden should be ashamed. Using @usedgov as a weapon against states, like Utah, that have had some of the best education results during the pandemic is as wrong as it is low," he tweeted.
Republican Utah Rep. Burgess Owens said Cardona is taking a page out of the teachers unions' playbook by using threats and COVID-19 resources to infringe on states' authorities to protect students and ensure access to education.
"In an egregious overstep of federal power, this administration is threatening to weaponize taxpayer dollars and bully states into complying with its overreach," he said in a statement Friday.