In debate over masks, Arizona parents of kids in special education worry about COVID-19 safety

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This article was published on the Arizona Republic by Yana Kunichoff on August 11, 2021.

As COVID-19 forced thousands of Arizona families in and out of remote learning last school year, Sadie Derton struggled through the difficult and often despairing work of supervising the online classes of her two children.

This year, Derton was ready to put that all behind her and resume in-person school for her two sons — until she realized that she couldn’t ensure the aide who would work closely with her children would wear a mask.

In Arizona, where state law bans mask mandates, schools are not allowed to require that staff members wear face coverings.

That’s left Derton, like many Arizona families with students in special education classes, not sure where to turn next. One of her sons has cat eye syndrome, or Schmid–Fraccaro syndrome, a rare chromosomal disorder. Her other son, going into seventh grade, has Down syndrome and had struggled through collapsed lungs multiple times. He is vaccinated but also immunocompromised, meaning the vaccine may not offer as reliably high a level of protection from the coronavirus.

“We’ve tried basically every avenue,” said Derton, who describes hours of calls to administrators and meetings to think through solutions. “My kids deserve to be able to leave the house and go to get an education.”

She’s not alone. Parents of students in special education classes, many fearing a second lost year for students who struggled with online classes or have compounding medical conditions, are engaged in an urgent rush to get doctor’s notes, secure accommodations or get reassurance from school officials that their child’s specific needs will be met.

Their experience is yet another facet of fight over school masks in Arizona.

A broad group of families and public health officials have been vocal in calling for mask mandates, and at least 10 Arizona school districts have instated one in opposition to state law in recent weeks. At the same time, oral arguments will begin this week in the lawsuit of a teacher against Phoenix Union High School District that challenges the district’s mask mandate.

But for now, as schools settle into the first weeks of this school year, the decision on whether to wear a mask at most schools remains up to individual students and the adults around them.

And parents like Derton say they are continuing to fight to meet their children’s needs, a dynamic they are used to doing.

“My kids lost so much last year with distance learning,” she said.

Her son with Down syndrome needs to learn everyday tasks like how to get change from a cashier and how to ride the bus, all skills that are difficult to do through distance learning.

“I’m struggling to find that balance between keeping my children safe and healthy and giving them the tools they need for the future,” Derton said.

In districts, an effort for safety and flexibility

Students served by individual education programs or 504 plans can have a broad number of physical or mental realities that require support from their school, ranging from extra help in a certain subject to support with everyday functions like eating.

Under the social distancing and other safety guidelines for in-person school during COVID-19, meeting those needs can be even more complex. For students who learn best through hands-on teaching and using tools, social distancing is challenging. Students with sensory sensitivities may struggle to wear a mask for a long period.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for students with disabilities advises that districts work with families to understand the needs of students, districts be flexible on when social distancing is possible or necessary, and teachers and staff consider wearing a mask with a clear panel to assist students who rely on lip reading or need extra learning support.

The agency also suggests that if schools have direct service providers such as paraprofessionals, therapists or health care consultants who are not fully vaccinated and work at multiple schools, schools should ask if any of the other locations have had COVID-19 cases.

In practice, schools say they are often working on a case-by-case basis to make sure a classroom space is ready for use and both families and teachers feel safe.

The Tucson Unified School District, one of at least 10 districts statewide to mandate masks in defiance of state law, said they encourage all staff and students to wear masks, but if a student can’t wear a mask, “staff will follow sanitation procedures and practice social distancing when possible.”

At Tolleson Union High School District, where masks remain optional but strongly recommended, the district has outfitted rooms that serve medically vulnerable students or those who require additional academic support with extra stockpiles of protective equipment, plexiglass dividers and a heavy-grade disinfectant tool called a fogger.

“It’s a very emotional time to be an educator, because you want to do everything and then some to keep all the kids safe,” said Mindy Westover, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Tolleson. “Every educator wants to do their absolute best.”

From phone calls to letters, Arizona parents look for support

In a state with chronically unequal special education funding, families navigating COVID-19 safety measures in school this year say their efforts to have students’ needs met mirror their larger battles for services.

It took Laura Sierra years of meetings and cajoling to get her daughter’s individualized education plan in place at Washington Elementary School District, an effort that has been interrupted almost every year, first by the 2018 Red for Ed teacher walkouts and then COVID-19.

Now, even as Sierra is reluctant to send her daughter to school when some students may be unmasked, she knows her child will only fall further behind without in-person class.

“Last year she did not learn a lot, so she is really behind,” Sierra said.

Her daughter’s school district passed a mask mandate but allows families to opt out. On the first day, Sierra said, about half the students she saw were wearing a mask.

Washington Elementary School District said in a statement that, in addition to masks, the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan for medically vulnerable students includes social distancing of 3 feet, frequent handwashing and enhanced ventilation. The district is also offering a remote learning option for those students.

Alice Daer’s daughter started third grade in Tempe this year. Online school had been “impossible” for her family because her daughter needed an adult to support her through much of her day. Now her daughter is back in school, fully masked, but it has been a struggle to explain why she must wear a mask but some students don’t have to.

“It’s been pretty frustrating for us,” Daer said. “We just try to encourage her to focus on herself.”

And parent and doctor Cadey Harrel said she unenrolled her three children from the district they had always attended to move them to the Tuscon Unified School District, which has a mask mandate. The main impetus was her concerns about COVID-19, but her fifth-grade daughter, who had an individual learning plan to address a learning disability, also was falling behind.

“You are asking so much of a kid to sit in front of a computer when they already have attention issues,” Harrel said.

Still, the decision wasn’t easy. Her youngest daughter would have entered kindergarten with the same teacher who had taught her oldest child.

“We loved the school, we loved the teachers,” she said. “It was devastating.”

Even as parents find workarounds that make them feel safe enough to send their children for in-person school, many say they are never sure what the next day will bring.

After a year of difficult online school, including times when her then-fifth grade son, a gifted learner who was also autistic, would say he wanted to die, parent Tory Roberg hoped to return to in-person learning.

As the school year approached, she expected her son’s district, Washington Elementary School District, to open without a mask mandate. Roberg left her job as the director of government affairs at a nonprofit called Secular AZ to help manage her son’s schooling needs.

Then, a week before school started, Washington Elementary passed a mask mandate.

“I am really grateful that the school district did pass that mask mandate,” she said. “At least we get to try (in-person learning).”

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