Ban on mask mandates to protect against Covid puts students with disabilities at risk

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Jackson Gould is a cheerful, active and outgoing 9-year-old boy who enjoys school, gymnastics and swimming. Jackson also suffers from cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that fills his lungs with sticky mucus and makes him highly susceptible to recurring bouts of pneumonia. (I wrote more about cystic fibrosis last month in “Salt in My Soul…,” Mallory Smith’s posthumous story.)

Jackson lives in Douglas County, Colorado. The policy drastically changed the nature of the local school board, as it happens across the country, and it got ugly.

CDC and masks

The great battle of the masks continues, more a sign of a cultural divide than a real dispute over the value of masks, it seems.

For some time the The CDC has recommended universal indoor masking by all students aged two and over, regardless of their vaccination status.

The CDC just reported a new study in the MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) supporting masking.

The study isn’t great – it was a survey – but adds further support to the value of masking for other studies Already available. In this one, CDC estimates that surgical masks reduce subsequent positive tests by 66%, but N95 or KN95 reduce the risk of infection by 83%.

Respected airborne transmission experts Linsey Marr (Virginia Tech) and José-Luis Jimenez (University of Colorado) said this bolsters previous data. Jimenez told the Washington Post“Wearing masks indoors reduces transmission, with the protective effect increasing for better mask quality and fit.”

In Douglas County…

But none of that consensus from public health experts that masks are useful in preventing Covid cases to far-right conservatives.

Schools previously fell under the tri-county health department, but county commissioners objected to the health department’s mask mandate. So the commissioners established a new Douglas County Board of Health (BOH); they quickly dropped the mask mandates on October 8, per Colorado Public Radiochronology. On the 20th, the school district, led by Supt. Corey Wise and the families of vulnerable schoolchildren, sued the new BOH. Wise said: “The choice is: are we going to ignore the recommendations of medical experts around the world and put the lives of vulnerable students at risk?

On Oct. 26, a judge granted a restraining order, saying dropping the mask mandates violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

An even more conservative list, “Kids First”, was elected in November. Soon after, they dropped the mask mandate for schools. (December 8). The following month, on January 25, the newly elected commissioners also changed the equity policy, over the objections of 65 directors and central political staff. On Jan. 28, they told Mr. Wise to resign or be fired, apparently violating Colorado’s open meeting laws. On February 2, there was a “work stoppage” in protest, with almost 1,500 of the 3,300 teachers in the district being absent. Wise, who had worked for the school district for more than 25 years and was described as “beloved,” was fired on Friday evening February 4.

In this context, Kate Gould, the mother of Jackson, tried to find what was best for the health of her children. During the winter break, Gould asked the school that the children in her son’s class be masked to protect him. The school district initially refused, but later relented after Jackson’s lung specialist intervened. Some parents then threatened to file a complaint.

Jackson returned to school and, just three days later, tested positive for Covid after sitting next to a child at lunch who was later found to be Covid positive.

Not surprisingly, Jackson developed pneumonia and required increased lung treatments (thoracic physical therapy) in addition to antibiotics. He and his mother are waiting to see if the pneumonia has caused permanent damage to his already fragile lungs.

Protect vulnerable children

Across the country, parent groups, with the help of the ACLU, are suing states that ban mask mandates. This is due to the fact excluding children with disabilities from in-person learning violates federal law— more specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These require schools to make reasonable accommodations for students to attend school.

With Covid, children with lung or heart problems, immune system disorders, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy are at increased risk of complications from the infection. In a podcastSusan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program, explained,

“Poor households also tend to live in urban areas which may be in more polluted areas. Thus, children more often suffer from asthma. And asthma, because it involves the lungs, is one of the conditions that puts you most at risk from Covid. Thus, poverty and race intersect just as poverty and disability intersect. Of course, these poorer parents do not have the luxury of staying home with their children.

the the most recent lawsuit is against Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to make masks optional in public schools.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott had banned schools from requiring masks. A judge ruled against him in November, supporting vulnerable students instead.

Similar lawsuits are ongoing across the country. Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia have limited capacity of local school districts at enact mask requirements in public schools.

The underlying message of Abbott, Youngkin and others is that the lives of people with disabilities are less valuable and that “personal rights” and the individual rights of parents are paramount and trump public health needs. While no one is accusing these governors and their kindred spirits of actively suggesting that the disabled are less valuable than the fully able-bodied, if you haven’t read much history, the Nazis also preferred to clear areas that they controlled people with disabilities, who were called “unworthy to live” or “useless eaters”and a burden on society. (For more, see Eugenics).

Kate Gould noted the irony that a local high school is raising money for the Make-A-Wish foundation. This year’s recipient is a nine-year-old child with cystic fibrosis who wants to go to Disneyland. However, “if he was in our school district, they wouldn’t mask him and give him housing under the ADA.”

Gould hopes to leave the area. Jackson was bullied, and at the December BOE meeting, “the manager asked a sheriff from Douglas County to escort me to my car for my own safety.”

Gould concluded, “It is simply unconscionable for my child’s school district to refuse to protect his health, a health he and I work very hard to achieve every day.”

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