Deal could make disabled students’ classmates wear masks

Disabled students can request that their peers be required to wear masks in class in 12 Virginia schools under the terms of a settlement reached Monday.

Parents at those 12 schools filed a lawsuit in February to challenge an executive order from Gov. Glenn Youngkin as well as a new state law giving parents the right to exempt their children from mask mandates that were in place at schools at the time.

The parents who sued said that under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring masks is a reasonable accommodation for students at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

Under the settlement, parents of disabled children can request that the students’ peers be required to wear masks. The school district then is supposed to engage in an “interactive process” to determine whether peer masking is required. The settlement says schools should also consider alternatives like social distancing, ventilation improvements and teacher masking.

If the disabled student’s classmates are required to mask, the settlement instructs that the masks should be required only to the extent necessary to accommodate the disabled student.

If parents don’t want their child to wear a mask, the settlement instructs schools to take reasonable steps to accommodate those parents as well, including rearrangement of classroom seating or class assignments.

The students whose families sued suffer from conditions including cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma, Down syndrome, lung conditions and weakened immune systems.

The settlement largely tracks the terms of a preliminary ruling issued in March by U.S. District Judge Norman Moon, a ruling that prompted an appeal from state officials. Moon must still sign off on the settlement for it to take effect.

The settlement only applies to the public schools attended by the plaintiffs themselves. But Matthew Callahan, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which represented the students, said school systems across Virginia can use the settlement as a template for accommodating their own disabled students.

“Our hope is that every school district in Virginia will take the outcome of this case as a sign that they are entitled to accommodate their disabled students,” Callahan said.

The schools attended by the students when the suit was filed in February are Brownsville Elementary School in Albemarle County; Stanton River Middle in Bedford County; Grassfield Elementary and Southeastern Elementary in Chesapeake; Enon Elementary in Chesterfield County; Cumberland Elementary in Cumberland County; Stenwood Elementary in Fairfax County; Quioccasin Middle in Henrico County; Trailside Middle and Loudoun County High in Loudoun County; Jennie Dean Elementary in Manassas City; and Tabb Middle in York County.

Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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