Even as schools relax some COVID-19 rules, like mask mandates, they are legally obligated to take steps to protect students with disabilities, who may be at greater risk of severe illness than their peers, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said.
To meet the requirements of federal disability rights laws, for example, schools may require teachers and peers to mask around higher-risk students, even if there isn’t a school-wide requirement to do so, Cardona said in a letter to educators and parents March 24.
“The [Education] Department recognizes the difficulties many families have experienced as they strived to balance the need to ensure their child’s physical safety and their child’s need for in-person learning,” Cardona wrote. “As we enter this next phase of pandemic response, we urge schools to lead with equity and inclusion to ensure all students have access to in-person learning alongside their peers.”
His caution comes weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new risk metrics and said schools in most of the country could drop mask requirements.
That move alarmed some parents of medically vulnerable children, who’ve argued in court that universal masking is necessary for their children to safely access in-person instruction. Last year, the Biden administration also asserted that some states may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when they prohibited local school systems from requiring masks.
The CDC’s new metrics dictate community risk levels based on a formula that incorporates hospital capacity, rather than overall case counts. It only recommends universal school masking in the highest-spread areas— 1.65 percent of counties nationwide under the most recent analysis from the agency.
Higher-risk individuals should consult with their doctor about precautions, including masking, if they live in a lower-risk area, the CDC urged. Many students with disabilities, including conditions like asthma and down syndrome, are among those classified as high-risk by they federal agency.
Echoing advocates’ concerns
As the CDC made the shift in recommendations, some disability rights groups like the ARC of the United States lamented that leaders didn’t stress schools’ obligations to students, which may include continued precautions in some classrooms.
Echoing those cautions, Cardona wrote:"It is important to remember that State and local educational agencies ... are bound by Federal laws, including Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure the inclusion of students with disabilities, including those experiencing Long COVID, in our nation’s schools.”
Under a student’s individualized education program or plan for accommodations under Section 504, educators and families may make special plans to meet eligible students’ “school-related health needs,” the letter said.
That may mean the school provides higher-risk students with high-quality masks, like N95s, that can provide extra protection to the wearer, even if those around them have uncovered faces.
It might also mean schools agree to extra precautions, like sanitizing and masking, in classrooms of higher-risk students, Cardona said.
Federal laws also require schools to educate students with disabilities in the least-restrictive environment possible. That means schools can’t isolate or segregate higher-risk students from their peers as a COVID-19 precaution, Cardona cautioned.
“Similarly, schools should be cautious about singling out or identifying students with disabilities as the cause of any perceived burden to avoid stigma and the risk of bullying and must take steps to address any bullying that does occur,” Cardona wrote.
Groups like the National Center for Learning Disabilities praised Cardona’s message.