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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

NCIL Statement on Face Masks in Education Settings

The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) is encouraged by the March 24, 2022, letter from US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona clarifying the legal obligations of schools to students with disabilities regarding protection from COVID transmission. The March 24 letter provides advice and resources to fulfill these legal obligations. NCIL agrees with the Secretary’s guidance that schools may require school staff and students to wear masks to protect students with disabilities from contracting COVID.

The decision to require masks in education environments should be based on a case-by-case analysis. Schools must make reasonable modifications to their policies to provide students with disabilities with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). As Secretary Cardona’s letter recognizes, a reasonable modification may include requiring all students and school staff to wear masks in classes. If some school staff and students are not vaccinated for COVID, they are at an increased risk of getting and giving COVID to others, including students with disabilities with immunocompromising conditions. If schools cannot issue mask mandates, they would discriminate against students with disabilities who cannot attend class in person due to the heightened risk of getting COVID from unmasked and unvaccinated students.

Several federal courts are reviewing mask mandate reasonable accommodation requests. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge a state budgetary provision that withholds funding from local schools that have mask mandates. In the Fifth Circuit, Texas is appealing the US District Court’s decision that a state executive order violates the 504 and the ADA by prohibiting local schools from issuing mask mandates. In the Eighth Circuit, the Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail in their case against South Carolina.

NCIL recognizes that some disabilities, such as sensory processing disorders and autism, can make masking difficult for some people with disabilities. NCIL realizes that conflicting access needs can be challenging to accommodate but can be done. The student and their 504 or IEP team should determine what accommodations and modifications to implement. Classrooms and other school spaces, including transportation, must include needed accommodations to ensure FAPE is provided to all students with disabilities. Students should not be removed from the general education environment and placed in other settings unless determined necessary by the student and their 504 or IEP team.

While virtual learning or homebound instruction may be preferred and appropriate for some students, the rare use of these alternatives must be effective for the student and ensure that FAPE is provided, including meaningful progress within the general curriculum. However, alternatives such as virtual learning or homebound instruction are unnecessary if others can adequately reduce the risk to the immunocompromised student by wearing masks around the student.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provided substantial funding for schools for masks and other COVID prevention measures. NCIL believes that schools must take reasonable and rational precautions to protect people with disabilities from COVID.