Bill Lee school

Gov. Bill Lee visits Ross N. Robinson Middle School in January

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to allow parents to opt students out of local school mask requirements because the rule may “discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.”

The federal government sent letters to chief school officers in Tennessee, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah on Monday detailing the new investigations. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona previously informed Tennessee officials that he believed the mask exemption order might violate federal law.

The civil rights office is also keeping tabs on Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona but has not yet opened investigations in those states because their similar orders are not being enforced, according to a release.

A spokesperson for Lee said his office is reviewing the new information.

"The department has heard from parents from across the country — particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions — about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally," Cardona said in the release. "It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve. The department will fight to protect every student's right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall."  

Lee issued the order after House Republicans asked him to call a special legislative session, in part because school districts in Nashville and Memphis (other districts have since joined them) decided to mandate masks for students returning to classrooms this fall. Lee has repeatedly said that parents should make the decision about whether a student wears a mask to class.

Schools around the state have been forced to close due to ongoing spread of COVID-19 and its Delta variant among students, teachers and staff. After initially deciding that Tennessee schools could not revert to virtual schooling plans developed last school year, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said last week that individual schools and classrooms, but not entire districts, could seek waivers to offer virtual learning when faced with COVID outbreaks.