When mask-wearing exceptions have merit

By Sarah K. Lanzo, January 28, 2022

What do you think when you hear about someone trying to be excused from the on again/off again New York State-mandated mask-wearing requirements? Do you raise an eyebrow at some of the reasoning and advocacy that is being done to avoid adherence to this order, which has been put in place to promote reduced transmission of COVID-19? Isn’t it really that they just find the awkward, eyeglass-fogging masks an uncomfortable annoyance (well, who doesn’t? But we need them!) and are looking for a legally acceptable excuse to avoid them?

That’s what I thought, until I heard news reports about a 10-year-old boy with multiple disabilities who has been compelled by his school system (right here in Western New York) to use remote learning at home, as he cannot wear a mask. His parents have filed a complaint in U.S. District Court charging that the school system is in violation of federal law mandating their son has equal access to public education. The family attorney states that the district’s policy is in defiance of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504 bars disability-based discrimination by entities getting federal funds), as well as federal and state guidance on mask wearing.

More to the point, the daunting list of disabilities of the youth are offered. “The boy is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, migraines, hypotonia [decreased muscle tone due to the brain or nervous system] and pica, an eating disorder involving eating nonfood items.” While his mother has been helping him with homework, his parents feel he has a need for in-person social interaction for his development. The family has documentation from his medical provider that his pica disorder barred his wearing a mask, but he could use a face shield and had been practicing wearing one provided by the school district. Nevertheless, the district surprised the parents by abruptly declaring that he could not return to in-person learning without a mask, so remote instruction was the only option.

The parents have appealed this decision at several levels, from the local school straight up to the Governor’s office with the universal response at each level, “We’re working on it”. This prompted the father to say, “He’s no different from any other student. They’re punishing him because he’s disabled, and it breaks my heart.” In addition to remote schooling, their son has had little to no supportive services required by law in 22 months.

As I write this on January 25th, the news tells me that the school district has reached a provisional agreement with the parents to let the boy attend classes wearing a face shield and with other precautions as of February 7th, while the litigation continues. This could lead to the return to the classroom of other students with disabilities who have also been the subjects of complaints about this restriction. It’s amazing what bad publicity can do!

As a long-time disability rights advocate, I remember the struggle for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reauthorized by Congress in 2004 and amended by Public Law 114-95, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in December 2015, wherein the lawmakers proclaimed, “Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

In today’s “new normal” and in the middle of a pandemic, when we need to pull together, support and keep all of us safe, we should not allow inflexible policies to prevent equal participation and revert to the outdated notion that keeping people with disabilities away from the rest of us is healthy.

Let’s not use a bad rationale for ignoring that education is for everyone, that equal access is critical and that separate-but-equal has been proven not to work, and it won’t work now.

I hope all our local school districts get that message!

Sarah K. Lanzo is the director of Independent Living of Niagara County, a member of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. family of agencies that serve individuals with disabilities. For more information, call 284-4131, extension 200.