Masks Required at School – What About Kids with Disabilities?

Recently, we have been receiving inquiries from parents who are worried that their children with disabilities won’t be able to go back to school because of the new mask mandate issued by Governor DeWine.  The order requires all students in grades K-12 to wear a mask at school.  But, as we all know, there is a fairly small group of students who, because of their disabilities, simply cannot wear a mask all day, if at all.   Governor DeWine’s mandate specifically exempts these students:

  • any child unable to remove the face covering without assistance,
  • a child with significant behavioral/psychological issue undergoing treatment that is exacerbated specifically by the use of a mask,
  • a child living with severe autism or extreme developmental delay who may become agitated or anxious due to the mask, and
  • a child with a facial deformity where a mask will cause airway obstruction.

There is a lot of talk about masks for persons with asthma, but you’ll notice that asthma alone is not a qualifier.  In a joint letter from Ohio Children’s Hospital Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, which the Governor references, it states, “Specifically, asthma, allergies and sinus infections are not a contraindication for using a face covering/mask.”  That is not to say that someone with asthma couldn’t qualify for an exemption based on one of the scenarios itemized above.

If you believe your child falls into one of the exemptions provided by the Governor, reach out to a school administrator right away.  Tell them your concern and find out what, if any, documentation your school might require.  They may ask you to get a letter from your child’s physician saying that due to his/her disability or medical condition they are unable to wear a mask.

A physician should easily be able to provide a letter.  Many of our clients’ kids have multiple physicians, so if a particular doctor is unable to write a letter, try another.  For instance, if a general pediatrician can’t write a letter, ask your child’s pulmonologist, behavioral therapist, or another specialist who is familiar with their needs.

If it is determined that your child does not qualify for an exemption from mask wearing, request a virtual IEP team meeting now to discuss strategies to teach your child to use a mask or ways to minimize mask use by maintaining social distancing, clearing the hallways before transitions, etc.  Maybe you can talk about different types of facial coverings that would meet the mandate but would be easier for your child to wear.  Then you can talk about when the student might be given a break from the mask. Although the mandate says all kids must wear masks, the Governor himself understands that some flexibility must be given for all children. When he was asked in the press conference about what qualifies as a “mask”, he responded, “And I think the consensus in the medical community is let’s no[t] nitpick, let’s don’t be judgmental, put something on. And I think that’s what the goal should be.”: https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/mike-dewine-ohio-press-conference-transcript-august-4)

The Governor clarified that wearing a mask is the clear norm, but acknowledged, “Look, everyone’s going to need a break from the mask. Teachers can handle that however they want to. Kids go out and recess, they can do something different. They can take the mask off during that period of time, whatever. That’s up to that individual teacher. But we have an obligation to put out what the norm is.”

I’ve already heard some parents confess that they were shocked that their children were able to wear a mask, as they never thought they would be able to get them to keep one on.  You never know – our kids sometimes surprise us!  This whole mask thing is still new to all of us – students, teachers, parents, administrators – everyone.  It’ll take a while to iron out the bumps, but we’ll get there together and we’ll be safer as a result.

Posted in Blog, Children with Special Needs, Special Education.