Coronavirus (COVID-19) - Face Masks in Schools

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Face Masks in Schools

November 30, 2020

Face masks or cloth face coverings are critical to reducing the spread of COVID-19 within schools. However, some students cannot wear a mask because of their disability.  This publication will tell you about student’s right to an accommodation or modification to face mask policies in school. An “accommodation or modification” means a change or adjustment to a policy that allows you to participate in an activity or service.

What is the most recent California guidance on masks?

Federal and California have recommended school districts to require the  use of face masks or cloth face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Under California state guidance, there are certain circumstances when masks are not required, including the following:

  • Children under 2 years old;
  • Persons with a medical condition, mental health condition, or disability that prevents wearing a face covering;
  • Deaf or hard of hearing people or those communicating with deaf or hard of hearing individuals, who need to see the mouth to communicate;
  • Persons who are receiving a service involving the nose or face, such as speech therapy or certain types of occupational therapy;
  • Persons who working or playing outside and are able to stay at least six feet from others.

Are students with disabilities required to wear a mask at school?

It depends. Federal guidance recognizes that some students with disabilities may not be able to use a mask because of sensory issues or other issues related to their disability. Wearing a mask might also pose a health or behavioral risk for a student with certain medical conditions or behavioral needs. So, requiring such students with disabilities to wear a mask may make it hard or impossible for them to take part in school. This may be discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and may violate a student’s right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Can a school require all students to wear masks?

School districts that order a blanket mask requirement, without allowing for medical exemptions or reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, may violate the ADA, Section 504 and the IDEA. School districts must offer reasonable accommodations based on your child’s unique disability-related needs.

What should I do if my child needs a reasonable accommodation or modification regarding masks at school?

Students have a right to a reasonable accommodation or modification to a face mask requirement in school if they  can’t wear a mask due to a disability or medical condition.  You can ask for a reasonable accommodation or modification to a face mask requirement for your child. Contact your child’s IEP and/or 504 plan team to discuss reasonable accommodations. If your child does not already have an IEP or 504 plan, you should make a request for a reasonable accommodation or modification.

Every student and situation are different. You must go through the “interactive process” with the school district. The “interactive process” means you and your IEP/504 plan team need to work together to determine what accommodations will allow a student to go to school safely. It may help to get documentation from your child’s doctor or other professional that says that your child has a disability that affects their ability to wear a mask and makes recommendations for reasonable accommodations that would allow your child to attend school.

What kind of mask-related reasonable accommodations can I ask for?

There are many reasonable accommodations and modifications that schools may be able to provide, for example:

  • Different types of face coverings and/or face shields;
  • Environmental changes to the classroom (e.g. increased spacing between students, plexiglass barriers, seating student near ventilation or air purification equipment);
  • Use of additional PPE for classroom staff;
  • Staffing adjustments;
  • Instruction and/or services provided outside, in the home, or in another setting;
  • Masks breaks for the student; and
  • Developing an IEP/504 goal and plan to increase mask use (e.g. videos or social stories on the importance of masks).

What should I do if my school district is not allowing my student reasonable accommodation under the mask mandate?

You have the right to file a discrimination complaint or request a due process hearing if your school district is not providing a reasonable accommodation, or if you do not agree with the accommodations offered by the school district. See Chapter 6 of the Special Education Rights and Responsibilities manual for more details on how to file a complaint.