Can your school district deny your child from attending school if they cannot wear a mask?
Many students with disabilities simply cannot tolerate a face mask. The Office of Civil Rights addresses when a face-covering requirement must be waived for a student with a disability and encourages school districts to “make reasonable modifications in their policies, practices or procedures and where those modifications can be made consistent with the health, safety, and well-being of all students and staff.” However, where parents have the upper hand is, “Where such modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability.”
If your child cannot wear a mask for an extended period of time and is an individual with developmental or intellectual disability, including autistic students, who cannot tolerate masks due to extreme sensory issues; people with mobility impairments who cannot independently put on or take off a mask; people with seizure disorders who may be in danger if they experience a seizure while wearing a mask (the mask may obstruct breathing or cause choking); people with lung diseases or breathing difficulties, (which include asthma); people with anxiety disorders who experience panic attacks while wearing masks, and individuals who cannot communicate effectively with another person if the other person is wearing a mask, (including deaf and hard of hearing students), the OCR addresses a face-covering requirement must be waived for a student with a disability.
When students with disabilities are not allowed to come to the school building because they cannot wear a mask, the school is denying your child to receive a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) to which they are entitled. For that reason, OCR encourages school districts to “make reasonable modifications in their policies, practices or procedures to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability.”
The CDC also recognizes there are specific instances when wearing a mask may not be feasible for “young students, such as those in early elementary school, people who have asthma or trouble breathing, students with special educational or healthcare needs, including intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, and sensory concerns or tactile sensitivity. If these students are unable to wear a mask properly or cannot tolerate a mask, they should not wear one, and adaptations and alternatives should be considered.”
Parents should request an exemption form from your school as well as call an IEP meeting or 504 team meeting to review your child’s medical health plan and ensure your request for a mask exemption is documented appropriately. Be sure to provide the school information from your child’s doctor to strengthen the integrity of your request and the school’s obligation not to require your child to wear a face covering. A medical exemption request will trigger your school’s obligations under Section 504, The Americans with Disabilities Act, and the IDEA, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
IEP and 504 Teams cannot refuse a medical mask accommodation request simply because a parent did not provide medical information to school officials. However, I recommend you provide a doctor’s note to avoid having your team delay or deny your request.
Your child should not be denied attending the school building simply because they cannot wear a face mask due to their disability. This is discrimination.
Parents, please understand, if no disability-related exceptions to the face-covering requirement are documented as an accommodation in the IEP or 504 for your child, your child with a disability may be treated the same as all other students if he or she refuses to follow the face covering and social distancing rules. This means your child can be held to the same disciplinary actions enforced by school districts and placed upon general education students. This is why it is so important to call an IEP or 504 team meeting to enforce the disciplinary safeguards and protections, which are entitled to your child under ADA and IDEA.
I invite you to join the Parent Brigade monthly membership to learn how to use your parent rights endowed to you and your child under special education state and federal law.