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Parents of students with disabilities nervous, discouraged with end to mask mandate

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Chris Seaman’s son is starting to feel better and ready to go back to Brownsville Elementary after spending months in a hospital following a bone marrow transplant.

But, the third-grader, who has leukemia, likely won’t go back to school this year because of a change in state law, effective March 1, that allows parents to opt out of mask policies. Virginia is one of several states that have prohibited local school systems from adopting their own mask requirements.

The third-grader’s parents, Seaman and Allison Lyons, joined other parents of students with disabilities and legal organizations in a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the new state law, Senate Bill 739.

The law violates federal laws that require equal access for children with disabilities, according to an amended complaint. A hearing on a motion for a temporary injunction will be held March 7.

“We’ve had to do everything else to layer on as much protection as possible, but he’s so eager to go back to school,” Seaman said. “I just feel it’s a choice between my kid’s education and my kid’s health, and that’s not a position that I think parents should ever be in.”

For Seaman, having his son go to school when all students might not be wearing masks presents too great a risk. Because of the leukemia and his treatments, he’s at high risk of severe disease from the virus. If he did contract COVID, that could cause complications or delay his ongoing medical treatment.

The third-grader recently received the first dose of the COVID vaccine, which he was able to get before the bone marrow transplant. He has two more doses to go, but Seaman said they aren’t sure what his immune reaction will be.

About 66.7% of children ages 5 to 11 in Albemarle have received the first dose of the vaccine and 53.5% are fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates are much higher — at around 87% — for children ages 12 to 17. In Charlottesville, 71.3% of those ages 5 to 11 have received the first dose and 54% are fully vaccinated.

Children under 5 years older are not eligible for the vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask guidelines Friday, recommending that those in areas with a high rate of transmission should continue to wear a mask indoors while in public settings such as schools. Both Charlottesville and Albemarle fall in the category along with Fluvanna and Nelson counties.

Rate of community transmission is determined by looking at new COVID-related hospital admissions over the previous week, the percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period.

For counties in the medium level, the CDC recommends talking to a doctor about mask use if you are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Greene and Louisa counties fall into the medium transmission category.

Albemarle and Charlottesville have required students, staff and visitors to wear masks while indoors since summer 2020 — a move largely supported by the community during public comments at board meetings. Employees and visitors will still be required to do so after March 1, and students still will wear masks while on buses.

“It’s just not the right time to be removing masks when we have people in our schools that are at risk, including my son and other kids and teachers,” said Sarah Lepore, who has two children in the county school division. “Many disabilities are silent and you don’t see them.”

She wants positivity rates to be lower and vaccinations available for the under 5 group before masks come off.

Although Lepore is concerned about the change, she’s planning to keep her youngest son at Brownsville Elementary. Her fourth-grader has a rare genetic disorder, Smith-Kingsmore syndrome, is autistic and has intellectual disabilities, she said.

She’s not sure how effective the COVID vaccine will be with her son’s disorder, so the family has been careful and continued to mask up.

Because teachers will still be wearing masks and the community has been supportive of masking, she said she’s more comfortable sending him in-person.

Lepore said having him go in-person this school year was a hard decision, but now she doesn’t want to pull him out of an environment where he’s learning.

“It would slow down the progress that he’s making, and this is an important time for him where he’s finally making some really great progress,” she said.

She’s planning to send an email to his teachers about their choice and seeking an addendum to his individualized education plan to ensure he receives support for mask wearing.

“My son lacks fine motor abilities to put his mask on and off,” Lepore said. “So after eating, he needs help putting this mask back on and, and so it’s really important that he continues to receive that support.”

Lepore said the decision on mask policies should have been left up to the local school boards.

“It’s really disheartening to me that we have a bill that’s speaking to the opposite of that when we know,” she said. “Evidence shows us that masking does work. I work in a hospital. We mask. I know it works.”

For students with medical issues that put them at risk, Albemarle County is working with them on a case by case basis, a division spokeswoman said. Albemarle’s virtual school is at capacity, limiting alternatives.

Charlottesville officials said they’ve had little interest from families about switching to all-online schooling. Schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. has said he expects many families will choose to keep wearing masks.

Vernon Liechti, president of the Albemarle County Education Association, encouraged the county school board to continue following the CDC’s advice.

“Every student and worker in Albemarle County deserves to work in a setting that ensures that they are in a healthy and safe environment, especially if those individuals are immunocompromised,” he said. “Students’ and workers’ health and lives depend on it.”

On the new state law, Liechti said there’s a bigger issue about the school board’s constitutional authority to make decisions in public schools.

“We encourage you to hold firm in protecting that authority,” he said.

Seaman said he was disappointed that the Albemarle board didn’t hold a public meeting about the mask policy before making the decision to go mask-optional.

In emails to the School Board and in public comments, Seaman has encouraged the board to keep the mask requirement in place, arguing that the law is unconstitutional and violates federal law.

The family has a kindergartner at Brownsville as well, and Seaman said they might have to pull the boy out of school for the rest of the year or until COVID rates decrease to keep his older brother safe.

“He’s really worried that if he were to catch COVID that his brother would get sick and go back to the hospital,” Seaman said.

Seaman’s older son’s schooling has been largely defined by his leukemia diagnosis and the pandemic. He was first diagnosed six weeks into kindergarten and spent the rest of the school year in treatment. He started going back to school part-time the following year but then the pandemic hit, cutting the year short.

Second grade was the best year of school for the boy, even though it was hybrid and defined by pandemic mitigation measures.

“He went in person even though he was immunocompromised for most of that time, in part because we felt comfortable with the universal masking policy at that point that he was safe,” Seaman said.

The boy relapsed over the summer before third grade and he hasn’t gone in-person yet because of the different treatments he’s undergone. He’s currently being homeschooled.

“He wants to get back as soon as it’s safe for him to do so, which we were hoping to be able to do very soon,” Seaman said.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order issued Jan. 15 and the new state law have disrupted those plans.

“It’s just deeply frustrating because he really loves school so much,” Seaman said. “He’s a great reader and loves to see his friends and really wants him back. But we just don’t feel safe sending him unless we know that everybody else is also going to be masked in this classroom.”


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