The Albemarle County school division is denying in-person learning access to students with disabilities who can't or won't wear a face covering — a group that should be exempted from the mask requirement, according to a state public health order.
As part of a stepped up enforcement of the division’s mask policy that was revised over the summer, the district now says that a student who isn’t comfortable wearing a mask has three choices: virtual school, home school or a private school, division spokesman Phil Giaramita said Monday.
The division’s mask policy and its implementation forces a small but vulnerable population of students into virtual learning, which parents say doesn’t meet their needs. Parents say the unexpected enforcement has left them struggling to determine how their child will learn this year and receive the supports they need to progress academically.
“You can understand what this does to families,” said Vera Volodin, an Albemarle County mom. “I've gone back to work this year for the first time. I took a teaching job in a different school because I thought Daniel was going to be in school and so I could do this. Now I'm looking at the situation of having my handicapped child in the classroom with me while I'm trying to teach middle schoolers.”
Volodin said that learning her 13-year-old couldn't go into the building if he didn't wear a mask all day was like a bomb dropping in her lap.
It is unclear why Albemarle chose to strictly enforce mask-wearing among students with disabilities during in-person instruction, when the state public health order, issued Aug. 12, specifically exempts “persons with health conditions or disabilities that prohibit wearing a mask.” Other school divisions in the area have policies in place that allow students with disabilities to not wear a mask.
Volodin, whose son Daniel is not able to wear a mask all day, said she supports the broader requirement but feels an exception is needed for students like her son. Daniel, who goes to Henley Middle School, has autism and an epilepsy disorder and is developmentally at the level of an 18-month-old, she said.
Volodin said her son doesn’t understand why he needs to wear a mask.
“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.”
She’s also worried about what would happen if Daniel had a seizure while wearing a mask. The epilepsy has impaired Daniel’s language skills, so he wouldn’t be able to ask for help. Volodin said Daniel used to talk and now doesn’t say anything at all.
Students in the virtual school will receive instruction on wearing a mask and to help them become more comfortable with the face covering. After they demonstrate online that they are developing the skill of mask wearing, they are invited into a school for an hour or two at a time until they are able to attend full-time, Giaramita said. If a student is never comfortable wearing a mask, then, according to current policy, that student would remain in the virtual school, which launched this school year.
Since the school division started planning for this school year, officials have said time and time again that in-person schooling is the preferred option and key to helping students to make up for unfinished learning.
As of the first week, 414 of 13,858 students were enrolled in the virtual school, and fewer than 20 were in the school because of mask issues. Giaramita didn’t specify how many of those students are part of the special education program.
Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said school divisions are responsible for implementing the public health order, just as in the case of a state law.
At the Virginia Institute of Autism's James C. Hormel School, students are exempted from wearing a mask without a doctor's note, director Jessica Doucette said. Staff at the school are working with students to desensitize them to a face covering, so they can at least ride a school bus.
Amy Walters, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said that the school division should assess each child individually to determine whether it is possible to accommodate their disability and make an exception to the general mask policy.
Walters and Legal Aid are working with several families who have been assigned to virtual learning because of the mask policy, but she said she hasn’t heard from people in other school districts where this is a problem.
“There are other ways to mitigate risk, such as distancing, testing, minimal contacts, and private placement, and the school system remains responsible for ensuring all children with disabilities make appropriate educational progress,” Walters said. “For children who are unable to comply with masks due to their disability but also are not likely to benefit from virtual school, accommodations to the mask policy are warranted.”
Experts have said since the pandemic began that virtual schooling would have a disproportionate effect on students with disabilities because of the support and structure that an in-person school day provides that can’t be replicated online. State and federal special education laws were not suspended during the pandemic, meaning that schools were still obligated to provide services spelled out in a student’s individual education plan, a legal document.
Beyond the logistical concerns, Volodin is worried because virtual learning didn’t work for Daniel. A typical school day for Daniel would involve short tasks followed by rewards and breaks of 15 to 20 minutes. Some of the tasks are focused on life skills such as brushing his teeth, putting on deodorant and using a fork to eat — skills that can’t be taught virtually.
Volodin said she won't agree to virtual instruction for Daniel.
“When he’s having a good day, he is very interactive and happy,” she said. “He loves to give high fives. He’s a happy kid. He loves looking at his books. He has his favorite books to look at. But when he’s having a rough day, it’s rough and somebody needs to be near him in case he seizes to catch him. He rests a lot if he’s having a rough day.”
When schools closed in the spring 2020, the division gave her an iPad to support virtual learning.
“I was doing it,” she said. “He doesn’t care. He’s not going to sit there. The teacher was reading a story, and he’s like, ‘I’m not interested,’ and he wanders off. Because that’s Daniel. He might have actually sat and listened to the story in-person.”
Daniel went back to school September 2020 as part of the first group of students who had access to the buildings, and he didn’t didn’t wear a mask for most of the time, she said, except when walking to and from his classroom.
This year was a different story. Volodin was told that Daniel would need to wear a mask, and after four days of trying, the division determined that he would have to go to the virtual school.
Giramaita said that division staff are aware that some students may have been allowed in school unmasked last year.
“As well-meaning as the rationale behind this may have been, it did not constitute an approved exemption,” he said. “It did alert us to the need to be more consistent in the way in which we made clear and monitored the mask requirement. If there is a difference this year, it is that the policy is being followed as written.”
But, the policy in question also changed. Last school year, students could be exempted by the school principal because of a documented medical condition, developmental or other disability. The superintendent or special education director also could exempt students because of special behavioral or individualized needs.
This school year, “students with a documented medical condition or developmental, behavioral, or other disability that prevents them from wearing a mask or face covering will be offered an alternative education program,” according to the revised policy that the School Board approved July 8.
That alternative education program is the division’s virtual school, Giaramita said.
For students who are uncomfortable wearing a mask in the building, schools are providing accommodations such as mask breaks, taking students for walks outside the school when they need relief from wearing a mask and increasing the amount of outdoor instruction, Giaramita said.
Volodin had an meeting with the individualized education program team Tuesday to discuss the virtual placement. The division didn’t change its overall stance, though school staff in the meeting discussed ways to bring Daniel into the building to help with mask wearing and follow the policy, including allowing him to come into the building for two hours a day to work on masking, she said. Volodin rejected the two-hour option.
Dezyana Walker received a similar message during an IEP meeting last week, which she called to discuss her four-year-old’s placement. School officials told her on the first day of school that her daughter needs to do virtual learning and mask training. Walker had to pick up her daughter, Malaya Shore, from Woodbrook Elementary on the first day of school because she wouldn’t keep a mask on.
Malaya has severe autism and is part of the early childhood special education program, Walker said.
Walker is working with Legal Aid and hasn’t agreed to virtual learning yet. She said she asked if her daughter could attend the Virginia Institute of Autism’s day school, which the school system would have to pay for, but that request was dismissed.
“She’s special needs,” Walker said. “She does not have the attention span to do virtual learning.”
Malaya attended school in Waynesboro last year for a few days a week and a few hours at a time. This year was supposed to be her first experience with full-time schooling, which Walker hoped would help Malaya get into a school routine.
So far, Walker feels frustrated and unheard by the division, she said. The last week has been stressful and nerve-wracking as she works to get her daughter back into school and set up therapy services through the Virginia Institute of Autism. She also has a one-year-old to take care of.