5 safety measures to implement for students who can’t wear masks

What to do when students with disabilities such as autism or medical conditions such as asthma are unable to comply with face mask mandates

In light of COVID-19, many states advise the use of face masks on most individuals, with a few exceptions.

For example, the New Jersey Department of Education has advised that everyone in districts across the state must wear a face mask. Exceptions are when doing so inhibits an individual’s health, when the individual is under 2 years of age, or when the face covering could be impractical for an individual with a disability, says Lauren E. Tedesco-Dallas, a school attorney at Capehart Scatchard in Mt. Laurel, N.J.

Students with autism, asthma, anxiety or other physical or mental impairments may not be able to wear face masks. “The face coverings cannot be implemented for everyone,” she says. “That’s a reality. There needs to be an understanding of that.”

When you have a student who is not able to wear a face covering, look at other measures. Following are five suggestions.

1. Rearrange classroom seating arrangements.

Turn all the desks in the classroom to face the same direction, as opposed to having them face each other, Tedesco-Dallas says. Or seat all students on one side of a table, spaced apart, instead of using a circular table. Or, you can place physical barriers between student desks.

2. Implement mask breaks for all.

Let the students take off their masks for outside activities such as recess or socially distanced gym, Tedesco-Dallas says. This may help students who can wear a mask for short periods of time only.

3. Practice social distancing.

Where a mask isn’t possible, consider whether social distancing is. It’s difficult to socially distance on a bus, for example, but if you can, then it’s highly recommended when there’s a student on the bus who is unable to wear a mask. Some districts are asking parents to drive their students to school. That allows for more social distancing on buses because they are not filled to capacity as they would normally be, Tedesco-Dallas says.

4. Discuss options with parents.

“In terms of accommodations, a lot of the requests have been focused on face coverings,” Tedesco-Dallas says. If a parent requests an accommodation for his child with respect to a face covering, engage the parent and the student in a discussion. Then, document whatever reasonable accommodation will be placed in the student’s Section 504 plan. This is especially important if you have teachers or other staff members who are older and therefore in the vulnerable population more at risk for catching COVID-19.

Also read: Get students with disabilities on board with new safety rules


“That could cause some issues,” Tedesco-Dallas says. “They [might] say, ‘We’re in a sensitive population, and that child is not wearing a mask.’ There needs to be some documentation as to why that child is not wearing a mask or cannot wear a mask.”

5. Keep in mind what’s practical.

“I think the bottom line is this all has to be implemented to the extent practical and possible,” Tedesco-Dallas says. “Sometimes, what’s recommended is not practical and possible, depending on what the setting is. It will take some creativity on the district’s part.”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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