Albemarle County is letting students with disabilities come into school buildings to practice masking after a reinterpretation of the division’s mask policy.
Children who were previously told they would have to attend virtual school if they couldn’t wear a mask have since been allowed to work on mask-wearing skills with their teachers in-person — a process known as desensitization that involves slowly exposing the student to the mask for increasing amounts of time and intensity while rewarding students as they tolerate the face covering.
Megan Atthowe, a behavior analyst with the division’s special education department, said the division has seen that students’ communication difficulties and sensory sensitivities can be barriers to wearing a mask and that it’s really a skill deficit that a lot of students have.
“So we’re asking them to wear a mask, to do this skill that’s difficult, and come into school where we have all these other mitigation strategies that are new and difficult, and to come in and learn all the new skills that you typically would learn in a school environment, so it’s really a lot to ask of a child,” she said. “We want children to be safe at school, and we also want to support them to be successful while they’re getting safe.”
The division’s current policy requiring that all students, staff members and visitors wear a face covering when indoors says that those with a documented medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a mask will be offered an alternative education program. Initially, that meant virtual learning for some students. However, schools have been able to accommodate students in this category by creating outdoor learning spaces and socially distanced spaces indoors, parents have said in interviews and at School Board meetings.
“The issue has been how our mask policy was being interpreted,” division spokesman Phil Giaramita said. “Virtual instruction was seen as the alternative to immediate, all-day mask wearing. Given the input from parents, it was important to offer a way that would make it possible for a student to be in-person and to become comfortable wearing a mask at a comfortable pace.”
“It's trying to get your toddler to wear a mask,” she said. “If the toddler feels like it, they do it and if they don't, they don’t. It’s not viciousness; it’s not meanness. You can explain until you are blue in the face but the toddler is going to take the mask off.”
The division recently teamed up with the Virginia Institute of Autism to help students and families with mask wearing. The partnership produced a how-to video that was sent to families earlier this week. It shows VIA and school division members working to help a child become accustomed to wearing a mask. The division is also planning to host workshops and informational sessions as part of the joint effort.
Giaramita said the partnership came together as the new school year began when it became evident that mask-wearing was going to be difficult for children, especially those in the special education program.
“In practice, it also made sense to do all we could to make it possible for [special education] students to be in-person in school,” he said.
The tips in the how-to video can apply to all students, but Giaramita said that the emphasis with the VIA partnership is on meeting the greatest need, which is in the special education program.
VIA, which runs a school for students with autism, has been working on mask desensitization with their students since early in the pandemic.
“It’s basically starting where the student tolerates the masks, whether that’s in front of them, on a table or actually over their nose and mouth,” said Shonnet Brand of the Virginia Institute of Autism. “Wherever that point is, that’s where we start. Then we slowly increase the amount of time, the end goal being that they can wear it all day to be able to access their education or to be able to get together with family members or friends in a safe way in the community.”
Brand said VIA tells parents to follow the three Ps — patience, persistence and positivity — when working on masking and other skills.
“Because it doesn’t happen overnight; it can take a long time,” Brand said, adding that the process does work and that VIA has seen several success stories.
Teaching and reinforcing the skill also requires a partnership between parents and the schools, officials said.
Atthowe said the school system is employing several of the same techniques that VIA has seen success with — breaking the mask-wearing skill into small steps, gradually building on each as a student tolerates it.
“We’re really looking at how to help students feel more relaxed while they’re wearing a mask and make it be as positive of an experience as possible, as opposed to something that’s really stressful or unpleasant,” she said. “Every child is different. … So we would want to make sure that we’re partnering with the family and seeing what the needs are there and then really getting to know the specific needs of each child in their classroom and their setting.”
‘Kids like him adapt’
Billy Gorman started working on mask-wearing with his son, Desi, in the early days of the pandemic. Desi, who is on the autism spectrum, is a sixth-grader at Henley Middle School this year.
To help him learn to wear a mask, Gorman said he would wear a mask himself when out in public places, such as the grocery store, and correct Desi if the covering slipped below his nose. They also experimented with different types of masks to find one that was comfortable.
“He had to practice at it and get better at it like most kids,” he said. “... But he works around it and adapts to it. I just have to remind myself that kids adapt and kids like him adapt. And he did for a large part.”
Desi didn’t attend classes in-person last year. Heading into this school year, Gorman said the family wasn’t sure how Desi would do in school wearing the mask all day.
“You prepare him for everything,” Gorman said.
Those efforts paid off: Desi is doing well this school year.
“He loves school; he loves all the kids,” Gorman said. “He wants to be here. So that’s probably a big motivator for him to do what he needs to do in school.”
Taylor Evancho, a special education teacher at Henley in the C-BASE program, said students in her class have been doing well. Teachers and aides in the classroom use a range of tools such as if/then statements, regular reminders and positive reinforcement to help students learn to wear a mask.
“We have great success with that,” Evancho said. “We do go outside to take mask breaks, play group games. We try to eat lunch out there just so that we’re not always wearing the mask.”
The C-BASE program is self-contained, meaning that students spend most of their day in one classroom, and designed for students with significant intellectual disability, who require intensive assistance to learn the curriculum standards. Evancho works with 13 students along with another C-BASE teacher.
“We have students that are great with it, some that need reminding, and some that we’re just kind of targeting,” she said. “Let’s just practice being at school with a mask on before we do anything else. Everybody is doing great. The kids are all working with us.”
Evancho said there’s a socially-distanced space in the classroom where students who are struggling can practice mask-wearing.
“I would just say reinforcement would be our biggest thing,” she said, adding that she and the parents are trading information as they find out what works for students.
One of the Henley C-BASE students is Daniel Volodin, whose mom spoke to The Daily Progress in late August about her son’s challenges with masking and the division’s policy. On Sept. 7, Daniel resumed full-time in-person classes following a short break after the school created a socially-distanced space where he could work on masking.
“With the aide constantly reminding him to wear it, he does wear it now,” said Vera Volodin, Daniel’s mom. “But it’s not like he actually understands what he’s doing.”
Daniel, 13, has autism and epilepsy and is developmentally at the level of an 18-month-old, Volodin said. Early in the school year, Volodin was told that Daniel would have to attend virtual school until he could wear a mask all day or come into the school a few hours a day to work on the skill. Those options didn’t work for the family, in which both parents work full-time.
Volodin praised Daniel’s teacher, Alexa Bolden, for doing everything she could to help find a solution.
Alison Nagel’s four-year-old son, Carter, is now attending VIA classes full-time because of the division’s initial enforcement of the mask policy. Her son was in the early childhood special education program at Brownsville Elementary and struggles to wear a mask.
In addition to having autism, Carter has facial paralysis as a result of Moebius Syndrome, a rare condition. He was also born with Pierre Robin Sequence, which meant that his jaw and chin were recessed, blocking his airway.
“So he’s had numerous surgeries over his little tiny lifespan to open his airway and allow for healthy breathing,” she said.
The early childhood special education classes at Brownsville are blended, meaning they include students who are not in special education.
Nagel said she received a call from Brownsville administrators on Sept. 9 regarding Carter’s challenges with wearing a mask. She said she was told then that the school would monitor his mask-wearing for four days and document any progress. But if he wasn’t able to wear a mask all day, he wouldn’t be allowed back in school.
Carter attended Brownsville last year and worked on wearing a mask with his teachers then as well.
“But he does not keep his mask on, and everybody knew that,” she said. “ … So when we sent him to school this year, we assumed it would be similar: that it was a goal but not an exclusion criterion.”
She talked about her concerns regarding the mask policy at a School Board meeting last month.
Because she wasn’t sure how often Carter would be able to attend school, she and her husband decided to send him to VIA full-time. Their insurance is paying for it.
“Our family would be really really in a tough position if we were not protected by layers of privilege and not every family has that,” Nagel said.
Nagel said that she was shocked after receiving the phone call from Brownsville administrators and felt like her son was being excluded from an opportunity because of his disability. She then reached out to VIA where her son was going a few days a week, and a coordinator there managed to get Carter into a full-time slot.
“It was honestly complete luck,” she said. Carter started at VIA full-time the week of Sept. 13, so he didn’t miss out on any in-person learning.
VIA is a better place for Carter, Nagel said. The whole situation has made Nagel rethink whether he’ll return to the county school system.
“Unfortunately, what this experience has shown me is that the county really has some big holes in what they’ll be able to do for my son,” she said. “It has really made me re-examine what his educational future is going to look like in the county at all. So that was a big wake up call.”
Nagel said she would like to see the School Board discuss the experiences of students with disabilities more in-depth and focus on this group.
“I think until that happens, I don’t I don’t know whether they really had the best interests of my kid in mind,” she said.
Dezyana Walker’s four-year-old daughter, Malaya Shore, is currently going to VIA full-time but will split her time between VIA and Woodbrook Elementary starting later this month. Walker, who also previously spoke with The Daily Progress, said division administrators offered the hybrid option during a meeting at the end of September.
Walker initially requested in a meeting in late August that her daughter attend VIA but that request didn’t move forward, she said. During the intervening month between IEP meetings, Malaya was at home with her while she worked with The Legal Aid Justice Center to figure out a solution.
Drs. Rachelle and Michael Keng shared their story at the Sept. 9 Albemarle County School Board. Their third-grade daughter at Stone-Robinson has Angelman’s Syndrome, which means she has seizures and other physical disabilities and can’t communicate verbally. Because of that, she struggles to wear a mask.
“The day before school started, we received a phone call that our daughter would not be able to attend school because she was not able to keep a mask on,” Rachelle Keng said. “We’re offered virtual school as the only option, which we know caused regression for our daughter last year.”
Stone-Robinson staff members created an outdoor learning space for their daughter, they told board members. However, they were concerned about the sustainability of that solution, especially with cooler weather on the way.
At the meeting, they requested to join the group of physicians who are advising the division on COVID-19 safety measures to discuss options such as large, ventilated indoor spaces. Rachelle Keng is an obstetrician and gynecologist affiliated with Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital while Michael Keng works as a hematologist at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
“We recognize that our children are a minority of the student body,” Michael Keng said. “We also recognize the safety of all those involved is paramount. But let us work together as a team to think of creative solutions that do not discriminate nor punish our children. Please remember that children who are severely affected by your mask policies.”
Giaramita said the Kengs were invited to address the Student Health Advisory Board, which led to a partnership with Kevin Kirst, the division’s director of special education and student services, that aided the collaboration with VIA.
The Kengs could not be reached for additional comment beyond what they told the School Board.