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"Simply unacceptable": Education Department probing 5 states over mask mandate bans

The Education Department said Monday that it launched investigations into five GOP-led states that banned mask mandates in schools.

Driving the news: In letters to education chiefs in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennesse and Utah, the department's Office for Civil Rights said the bans could discriminate against students with disabilities or underlying medical conditions.

  • The letter marks an escalation in the Biden administration's standoff with Republican states that say wearing masks should be a personal decision and that parents should choose for their children.

Details: The five states have prohibited schools from requiring masks for students and staff, contradicting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has advised universal mask-wearing in classrooms.

  • The investigation will focus on whether the policies "may be preventing schools from making individualized assessments about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person, consistent with their right to receive a free appropriate public education and to be free from discrimination based on their disability," Suzanne Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in the letters.

Between the lines: If the states are found to have discriminated against students with disabilities, the Biden administration could issue sanctions that include loss of federal funding.

What they're saying: "It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. "The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely."

  • The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The big picture: The Biden administration has repeatedly butted heads with Republican governors who have banned universal mandates, most notably Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis.

  • As of now, the department is not launching probes in states where mask bans have been struck down by courts or are not enforced, such as in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona.
  • The agency said it will closely monitor those states.

Why the startup world needs to ditch "unicorns" for "dragons"

When Aileen Lee originally coined the term "unicorn" in late 2013, she was describing the 39 "U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors."

Flashback: It got redefined in early 2015 by yours truly and Erin Griffith, in a cover story for Fortune, as any privately-held startup valued at $1 billion or more. At the time, we counted 80 of them.

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Scoop: Facebook's new moves to lower News Feed's political volume

Facebook plans to announce that it will de-emphasize political posts and current events content in the News Feed based on negative user feedback, Axios has learned. It also plans to expand tests to limit the amount of political content that people see in their News Feeds to more countries outside of the U.S.

Why it matters: The changes could reduce traffic to some news publishers, particularly companies that post a lot of political content.

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Scoop: Amazon quietly getting into live audio business

Amazon is investing heavily in a new live audio feature that's similar to other live audio offerings like Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces and Spotify's new live audio platform, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: As with Amazon's efforts in podcasting and music subscriptions, the company sees live audio as a way to bolster the types of content it can offer through its voice assistant, Alexa, and its smart speaker products.

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Hurricane Ida exposes America's precarious energy infrastructure

The powerful hurricane that plunged New Orleans into darkness for what could be weeks is the latest sign that U.S. power systems are not ready for a warmer, more volatile world.

The big picture: “Our current infrastructure is not adequate when it comes to these kinds of weather extremes,” Joshua Rhodes, a University of Texas energy expert, tells Axios.

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"We must go further": 70% of adults in European Union are fully vaccinated

About 70% of adults in the European Union are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said Tuesday.

Why it matters: The milestone makes the E.U. one of the world's leaders in inoculations, after an initially lagging vaccine campaign, the New York Times notes.

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What Elizabeth Holmes jurors will be asked ahead of fraud trial

Jury selection begins today in USA v. Elizabeth Holmes, with the actual jury trial to get underway on Sept. 8.

Why it matters: Theranos was the biggest fraud in Silicon Valley history, putting both hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of patients' health at risk.

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