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Parents Of Kids With Disabilities, Severe Medical Conditions Push For Strict Mask Mandates In School

 Cypress Bay High School students enter the campus in Weston on Broward County's first day of school. Students were required to wear masks, in defiance of new state rules.
Carl Juste/Miami Herald
Cypress Bay High School students enter the campus in Weston on Broward County's first day of school. Students were required to wear masks, in defiance of new state rules.

South Florida students who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 may not be able to attend school at all if their classmates aren't wearing masks, their parents argue.

The battle over mask mandates is playing out in school board auditoriums, state and federal courts and on the national political stage — and it’s far from over.

Students with disabilities may have the most to lose.

Alisha Todd’s 10-year-old son said he feels “trapped.” Todd asked WLRN not to use her son’s name to protect his privacy.

“I had brain surgery just a little over a month ago,” the Palm Beach County fifth grader said. “And if I got COVID, I could die.”

The boy is one of tens of thousands of children in South Florida for whom COVID-19 presents a grave threat — kids who have disabilities, severe medical conditions or compromised immune systems.

Their parents’ perspective is simple: My mask protects you. Your mask protects me. If other people in schools aren’t wearing masks, their kids are unprotected.

Todd signed on to a federal lawsuit targeting state officials as well as local school districts around the state. The challenge claims that, by not mandating masks, and therefore making it too dangerous for these vulnerable students to attend in person, school districts are violating students’ constitutional right to a public education.

Palm Beach County public schools opened Aug. 10, initially with a mask-optional policy. Todd’s son has been doing packets of worksheets at home.

His mom feels like he has few options.

“He's getting denied his education,” Todd said. “That's really what it is.”

Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, wrote in an emailed statement that the parents’ argument is flawed in its premise, because, as the governor has often claimed, there isn’t enough evidence that masks protect against transmission.

Medical experts in Florida and around the country call that misinformation.

How We Got Here

On July 30, DeSantis issued an executive order prohibiting school districts from mandating facial coverings. His administration argues that such policies infringe on parents’ rights to make educational and healthcare decisions for their children, which the Legislature enshrined in state law earlier this year.

DeSantis’ order was followed up with new regulations from the state departments of education and health — rules that stipulate parents must have the chance to “opt out” their kids from wearing masks.

Most school districts opened with optional mask policies. Alachua and Broward counties were the first to push back, mandating masks despite pressure from the state. The Florida Board of Education called an emergency conference call last Tuesday to move forward with punishing the districts.

The next day, though, more school districts entered the fray — including some of the biggest. Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties voted to require facial coverings with only medical exemptions. Others have since followed suit and more are considering tightening their policies.

Daniel Rivero
Parents who support and oppose mask mandates in schools square off outside the Miami-Dade County school board building during Wednesday's meeting. The board voted to require masks with only medical exemptions.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote to Alachua and Broward superintendents and school board members last Friday, alerting them he planned to make good on his threat to withhold their salaries if they didn’t change course.

A few hours later, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona released a statement pledging to use federal coronavirus relief funds to reimburse local school leaders who suffer financial penalties from their states “for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies.”

Cardona wrote in the statement: “Today, I also spoke directly to the Superintendents of Broward and Alachua County schools to reassure them that the President and his Administration stand with them and with all educators who put student and staff health and education first.”

Meanwhile, a Leon County circuit judge advanced a legal challenge targeting the new state rules. In that lawsuit, parents argue the state is shirking its constitutional duty to provide “safe” schools and overstepping by infringing on the authority of local school boards.

The trial will begin Monday morning. Judge John Cooper will also consider whether to combine the lawsuit with another from Broward County, filed by congressional candidate Elvin Dowling on behalf of his son — who has asthma.

What About Students With Disabilities?

Under federal law, the huge umbrella of students with disabilities includes not only kids with conditions typically thought of as disabilities but also common medical conditions like asthma and diabetes.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students in this broad category are guaranteed “a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.”

“In plain terms, that just means students with disabilities have a right to go to school and sit in classrooms, like every other student,” said Bacardi Jackson, a Miami-based attorney specializing in children’s rights for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In Broward County, 37,000 students qualify, according to a letter from the district administration explaining to state officials why the school board mandated masks.

During last week’s emergency conference call with the state Board of Education, Broward schools interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright reiterated that argument. She had been on the job for less than three weeks at that point.

“This is getting into territories where, which law do we start applying here?” Cartwright said.

“Because when we start taking away the rights of students with disabilities, because we're unable to provide them with a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment — that is something that is very alarming to us,” she said.

For Alisha Todd’s 10-year-old in Palm Beach County, the “least restrictive environment” is in school. But before the school board’s reversal last week, face-to-face instruction was out of the question, because masks were optional.

Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Broward County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright attends a School Board meeting at the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Building in Fort Lauderdale on July 28.

Todd’s son is on the autism spectrum. He also has a rare neurological disorder called hereditary hyperekplexia, which causes muscle stiffness. He recently underwent surgery for a condition called Chiari malformation, which causes the brain to herniate out of the skull cavity. During that procedure, doctors discovered another ailment: arachnoid web, which constricts the movement of cerebrospinal fluid between the brain and the spinal cord.

Todd said she plans to consult her son’s medical team before deciding if it’s safe to send him to school.

If her son’s doctors advise against returning, Todd isn’t sure what she’s going to do. Florida Virtual School doesn’t offer the specialized curriculum he needs because of his disabilities. There’s also a program called “hospital homebound,” which is mostly online and includes little instruction time.

Todd called this, “quite frankly, a terrible option.”

Asked what he thought about the lawsuit, Todd’s son said: “I feel like my mom is being really cool, and she's trying her best to make sure I'm safe and stuff,” he said.

“And I feel pretty chill about it. I’m not gonna go, ‘Oh, no, oh no! It’s the end of the world!’ But I also want to stay safe.”

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.