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Albemarle parents settle with state over mask mandate lawsuit

Virginia parents of students with disabilities recently won the right to require students and teachers to wear masks to protect their kids from COVID-19, with Albemarle County parents Chris Seaman and Allison Lyons leading the fight.

“This settlement is a major step toward righting a wrong,” Seaman said. “The Youngkin administration tried to block the schoolhouse door to students with cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma, and other serious health issues who needed peer masking in order to safely attend school in person.”

The parents of 12 disabled students filed a lawsuit in February, arguing that federal disability law makes masking a “reasonable modification” for vulnerable students, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. The state reached a settlement with those parents on Dec. 12 that allows them to request that students and school staff wear masks.

“This settlement is a major step toward righting a wrong,” Seaman said. “The Youngkin administration tried to block the schoolhouse door to students with cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma, and other serious health issues who needed peer masking in order to safely attend school in person.”

When Governor Glenn Youngkin took office in January, one of his first acts was to revoke a public school mask mandate. That left it up to parents to decide whether their kids would wear a mask to school, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said community transmission was still high in the Charlottesville area at the time.

“I think the governor’s edict was just so quick, that they didn’t think it through,” said disability advocate Paul Babcock.

Seaman and Lyons’s older son is a cancer survivor, which makes him more vulnerable to COVID.

“He’s still immunocompromised a year after his bone marrow transplant,” Seaman said.

The parents of 12 disabled students filed a lawsuit in February, arguing that federal disability law makes masking a “reasonable modification” for vulnerable students, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. The state reached a settlement with those parents on Dec. 12 that allows them to request that students and school staff wear masks.

“This settlement is a major step toward righting a wrong,” Seaman said. “The Youngkin administration tried to block the schoolhouse door to students with cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma, and other serious health issues who needed peer masking in order to safely attend school in person.”

For Babcock, who has experience applying federal disability law, parental choice doesn’t have bearing on disability accommodations.

“Just because you don’t want to do it, it doesn’t fit the notion of reasonable or unreasonable,” Babcock said.

The settlement also requires Youngkin’s administration to send the new guidance to Virginia school divisions and pay the parents’ attorneys’ fees. The settlement goes into effect immediately.

“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,” said ACLU of Virginia’s legal director Eden Heilman in a press release.

The governor’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment in time for press. A spokesperson for Attorney General Jason Miyares said the settlement maintains a parent’s right to choose whether their child wears a mask.

“We were pleased to assist the Governor in settling this case in a way that protects the federal rights of students with disabilities while ensuring that parents retain the state-law right to decide whether their children should wear a mask,” said Miyares’ spokesperson Victoria LaCivita.

However, the lawsuit requires everyone in a classroom to mask up, should the parent of a student with disabilities ask for that accommodation.

Albemarle County Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

For Seaman, the settlement offers relief after a legal battle that lasted nearly a year.

“At the same time our child was battling cancer, we also had to battle state,” Seaman said. “Ultimately, we’re happy with where we ended up in the settlement…this is yet another battle that we would have preferred not to have to fight, but we were willing to fight on his behalf.”

Seaman was grateful to county schools staff for their support and willingness to accommodate his older son, and hopes that the settlement will encourage other families to advocate for their children.

“No parent should be forced to choose between their child’s health and their education.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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