Special needs kids were abandoned during COVID. School mask mandates are another betrayal.
Parents with special needs students are already struggling with remote learning and lack of resources. Don't force masks on their kids too.
Widespread masking is back, and there’s a good chance it’s coming to a school near you. With the recent surge of the delta variant, 12 states, representing nearly a third of American children, have established mask mandates for public schools. But these regulations for schoolchildren will do more harm than good, and it is the most vulnerable students – those with special needs – who will bear the brunt of the harm.
Luckily, the return of masks for schoolchildren is not without heavy resistance. But for parents raising one or more of the 7 million children who receive special services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the reasons to oppose masking are far more personal.
For children with sensory needs, or emotional and behavior disabilities, traditional masking can be an active impediment to a proper education.
I should know. I was one of those kids.
Children suffer from physical distress
I grew up with sensory integration dysfunction, also called sensory processing disorder. People with SPD are unable to properly process the information coming in through their senses. Basically, it means you’re either more numb to certain sensory stimuli or you’re extremely, uncomfortably sensitive. For some, SPD might affect just one or two senses – for me it was touch and hearing. But for others, it can touch all five. It affects 5-16% of children.
This condition still affects me today. I am unusually clumsy, insensitive to temperature changes, have difficulty hearing when there’s ambient noise, and I don’t wear boots because of clothing sensitivity. Just last year as a college student, I often found myself quietly adjusting my mask during class because I couldn't get comfortable with how it felt on my face.
As a young child, my speech was severely delayed by complications due to SPD. Fortunately, I had an individualized education plan (IEP) through kindergarten, which granted me access to much-needed speech and occupational therapy.
None of it was easy, but by the time I entered elementary school, I had sufficiently caught up to my peers and no longer required special services. But when I graduated out of therapy, I still had trouble combating my clothing insensitivity. Had I been required to wear a mask in grade school, my progress would have been severely hindered.
If the pandemic had struck when I was 5 years old, my discomfort would have been far greater – I experienced pain crying, tantrums; I would not have been able to avoid unmasking myself repeatedly. And it’s not just children with SPD who react this way – kids with autism spectrum disorders experience similar discomfort with touch and clothing insensitivity. And kids who are constantly uncomfortable have a hard time learning.
Don't overstate COVID-19 risks
No parent or teacher wants to see a child go through that, but many had no choice in 2020.
A girl with autism was literally locked out of her Tennessee school for being unable to wear a mask. Her family even had a doctor’s note. (School officials argue they offered other accommodations for the girl. The parents say that isn't true.) A 5-year-old boy with autism was kicked off an Arizona bus on the first day of in-person classes for not wearing a mask, and ran away to try to catch it. That’s just two examples. Likely every student with special needs suffered in some way last year.
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Forcing students into uncomfortable situations isn’t fair to anyone. It’ll be bad for students and teachers alike. Furthermore, not being able to see mouths and faces can impair the youngest child’s language development, ability to communicate their feelings and recognize emotions in others. For children with special needs, many of whom are coming off a year of ineffective remote learning, these effects might only be magnified.
Certainly, these sacrifices could be considered necessary if the delta variant was a substantial threat to children, but it is not.
It's true that more than 350 children (in a nation of 74 million children) have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. But our fears of the disease are out of proportion to the risk children actually face. While transmission is higher with delta than with the initial strain of COVID-19, delta is not thought to be more lethal. Only 0.01% of COVID cases in children have resulted in death.
At the end of the day, those who require extra protection, like teachers and school staff, have access to highly effective COVID-19 vaccines. There’s no reason why these students should have to suffer for adults’ unwillingness to seek protection.
Students with special needs are in a precarious enough position as it is; they do not need states and schools adding even more challenges.
Families lack trust in schools
A fruitful IEP requires that parents trust their school district to meet their child’s individual needs, and in many localities, especially those that did not prioritize a return to in-person school last year, that trust has been shattered.
A federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York last September, which was joined by 500 families in more than 30 states, accused thousands of school districts across the country of defrauding special needs students by pocketing money that was meant to be used for in-person services like physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. Schools attempted to provide those services online, but children with special needs often require hands-on therapy in order to achieve any real progress, the plaintiffs said. Families are suing all across the country.
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While these lawsuits don't relate specifically to masking, they highlight how fed up families around the country are with their school districts. Throw a mask mandate on top of all that, and it’s sure to extinguish whatever trust is left. No wonder parents are scrambling for alternatives.
I hope the elta variant doesn’t preclude schools from accounting for special needs students. Every kid, special needs or not, deserves the same level of help that I received.
Forcing children who cannot physically wear masks to wear them benefits no one.
If states and districts want to avoid a mass exodus of special needs children from their schools, then they should start thinking about how they can actually serve them. That means lifting mask mandates and conducting business as normally as possible.
Garion Frankel is a former recipient of special education services, and a graduate student at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service with a concentration in education policy and management. He serves as the policy director for the Texas Federation of College Republicans, and a contributor to Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter at: @FrankelGarion