SAN DIEGO — Erin Coller’s 5-year-old son, who has an intellectual disability and autism, is not allowed to go to school because he can’t wear a mask.

Cadman has sensory defensiveness, which means he is hypersensitive and overreacts to certain stimuli. He especially doesn’t tolerate anything on his head or face, not even a hat, and he rips off masks in seconds, Coller said.

Cadman’s school, Hawthorne Elementary in San Diego Unified, has invited him to come to school to work with a teacher for up to 30 minutes a week. It’s part of San Diego Unified’s Phase One reopening, which so far has provided about 3,000 students with in-person support sessions.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But his teacher and principal told Coller that Cadman can’t come indoors if he won’t wear a mask — no exceptions, Coller said. Instead they could do a socially distanced greeting in the parking lot, Coller was told.

Coller said she is desperate for Cadman to get in-person instruction because he is learning little to nothing through distance learning at home and is failing to meet the academic goals in his special education plan. Coller said she feels frustrated and helpless.

“The lack of flexibility from the school district is making a challenging situation even more difficult,” she said.

San Diego Unified’s mask policy, which does not provide in-person learning accommodations for students who are unable to wear a face covering, is raising alarm among parents and attorneys who believe the policy may violate federal laws that outline rights for people with disabilities.

“It’s blatant discrimination,” said Gabriela Torres, senior staff attorney at nonprofit Disability Rights California, who said she has received two dozen calls and emails from families since last week about the mask issue.

San Diego Unified officials say their strict universal mask policy is based on guidance they received from University of California San Diego health and science experts and is crucial for preventing COVID-19 transmission.

The district is not allowing anyone without a face covering onto school campuses — even though county guidance says students who are medically exempt from wearing a face covering cannot legally be excluded from campus.

State public health guidelines specifically provide mask exemptions for people with a disability, mental health conditions or medical conditions that prevent mask-wearing.

For example, some people may have a facial deformity that prevents wearing a mask. Some people with disabilities drool and would collect drool in their mask if they wore one. In certain cases, people could suffocate or choke if they wore a mask.

For others with sensory issues, like Cadman, wearing a mask has an emotional or psychological impact, and they don’t tolerate it.

Schools are supposed to accommodate students with disabilities if they can’t wear a mask, county officials say. Students with disabilities cannot be automatically excluded from school if they can’t wear a mask, according to legal counsel with the San Diego County Office of Education.

“The school has to find other solutions to address contact concerns,” county office spokeswoman Music Watson said in an email.

For example, county officials suggest schools work with a student’s parents to use a mask alternative, such as a face shield with a drape or a plexiglass barrier between the student and teacher. If a student can’t wear any kind of face covering, the teacher should wear a face shield and mask or an N95 mask, if the school has a plan for proper use of N95 masks.

Not wearing a mask indoors significantly increases the risk of COVID-19 spread, said Dr. Howard Taras, a University of California San Diego pediatrician who is a consultant for schools in the area including San Diego Unified.

Taras sees the mask dilemma as a situation of opposing rights: the right of children to attend school safely and the right of children who can’t wear a mask to be in school.

“My struggle as a doctor and what I am working on is to be able to satisfy both of those rights,” he said.

For students who can’t wear a mask due to disability, San Diego Unified is looking at having them wear other face coverings that are farther away from the face, said Sarah Ott, district special education executive director, at a meeting earlier this month of the Community Advisory Committee that advises the district on special education.

The bottom line is students have to wear some kind of face covering so the air they breathe out goes through a cloth, Taras said.

When a parent asked district officials to confirm that San Diego Unified is not offering accommodations for students who can’t wear a face covering, Ott replied: “The accommodation is online learning.”

Torres and Moira Allbritton, an executive member of the Community Advisory Committee, said online learning is not an appropriate education or accommodation for many students with disabilities.

“It’s so offensive, especially for our students with moderate to severe disabilities who are just gaining next to nothing,” Allbritton said in an interview. “I think some families could make the case that (online learning) is actually harming their children.”

Cadman still is struggling with distance learning. He doesn’t sit down at the computer unless somebody is constantly watching him and giving him tokens for accomplishments such as making eye contact with the computer screen, Coller said.

Coller has to keep the computer away from Cadman so that he can’t close or throw it, she said, and she feeds him meals during distance learning sessions, which helps him stay seated longer.

According to federal education law, student special education plans must be tailored to meet the student’s specific needs, and schools must revise those plans if students fail to make expected progress.

Depending on the student, state guidance says schools may need to serve students with disabilities in-person for the sake of their mental or physical health and to help students access distance learning.

Taras said last week that he recommends that San Diego Unified teach students who can’t wear masks in outdoor classrooms, with physical distancing, because the risk of transmission is lower outside than indoors. It’s unclear how much San Diego schools will use outdoor classrooms when they reopen in Phase Two, which is planned for January.

In the meantime, Taras said, parents can and should be teaching their children how to tolerate masks, gradually increasing the time they wear a mask. Because the pandemic could be around for the next two years or so, Taras said, mask-wearing is as essential as other life skills that parents teach their children with developmental disabilities, such as fastening buttons.

“We want them to have that skill for the next two years … because we want them to have richer lives also, and not just in school,” Taras said.

© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.