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Friday, Dec. 16, 2022

A handful of disabled students in Virginia won the right to request that their schools require their peers and teachers wear masks — and one of those students is in Albemarle County.

But it doesn’t mean that all disabled students will receive the same accommodation. Today’s newsletter explains why.

Teenagers wearing face masks sit at desks working on laptops in a classroom.
Students work in an Albemarle High School class on March 9, 2022. Though the mask mandate ended a week earlier on March 1, most students continued to wear masks. Credit: Credit: Courtney Elhart/Charlottesville Tomorrow

On Dec. 12, the state settled a lawsuit brought by the parents of 12 students. The suit challenged Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s February 2022 executive order, and subsequent state law, that gave parents the right to exempt their children from wearing masks in the COVID-19 pandemic. Though mask mandates have since disappeared, the settlement still lays out a process through which schools must accommodate these 12 students, whose families say could be at significant risk if they were to get COVID-19.

“The school must engage in interactive processes with the student and his or her parents to determine in the first instance whether some amount of masking is necessary to satisfy the [American Disabilities Act] and the Rehabilitation Act,” the settlement reads. “In making that determination, a school should consider alternative modifications such as one-way masking, staff or teacher masking, ventilation improvements, and social distancing.”

The settlement applies only to the 12 students whose parents brought it — it does not broadly require that Virginia schools accommodate all disabled students. However, the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the parents in the case, said it hopes schools will use the settlement as a guide.

“We’re hopeful that every school in Virginia will view this settlement as a sign that they should make similar accommodations for their students, even if they are not part of the case,” Eden Heilman, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, said in a news release.

It’s unclear how that will play out. State law still forbids public schools from enacting mask mandates. But federal law requires them to modify their policies and practices to accommodate students with disabilities. (This settlement leaned on that law, saying peer masking is a reasonable accommodation for students who could become very sick from COVID-19.) The two somewhat opposing laws could leave districts not directly involved in this case in an awkward legal position.

In response to the settlement, Albemarle County Public Schools told the Daily Progress that its students and teachers already largely accommodate such requests voluntarily.

“Given a choice, parents will choose support and empathy in the classroom,” said spokesperson Phil Giaramita. “Their ability to make this choice should not require a lawsuit.”

I called Giaramita this morning, curious about a number of things: Was the class with the student involved in the lawsuit already masking? Would the school require that class to mask going forward? Would the district now accommodate all disabled students in a similar way? He was not immediately available, but we’ll follow up.

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Even after mandates ended, students in Albemarle County were slow to drop their masks

Students look at their phone in a classroom, all wearing masks. Student in foreground wears glass, two masks,
Credit: Courtney Elhart/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Even without a mandate, most students in Charlottesville and Albemarle are still wearing masks

But by the start of the year, masks were largely gone in public schools and respiratory illnesses were rapidly spreading. By October, area hospitals and pediatric offices were overrun by sick children arriving with COVID-19, the flu and a respiratory illness called RSV. Doctors theorized that a year of isolating and mask wearing meant that children had less immunity to common respiratory diseases.

“Some of the strategies that were put in place to decrease the transmission of COVID likely also decrease the transmission of RSV,” said Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UVA Medical Center. “And so now that those have fallen away, there’s more circulation and kids haven’t had those earlier infections in life. That may be why we’re seeing early and sort of a sudden increase in RSV.”

Parents struggle to reach medical providers as respiratory illnesses among area children soar

Public health officials suspect disease transmission to spike again following holiday travel and gatherings — as it does every year. So, before you head off to see family and friends next week, doctors strongly recommend getting your COVID-19 boosters and flu shot. Here are some links to help.

They may not stop you from getting sick — but could help keep you out of the hospital.

Stay safe out there!

Jessie Higgins, managing editor and health reporter

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I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.