Amid confusion, Vermont education officials say that masks can be required in certain school situations

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

A student works on their writing skills in Melisa Peterson's kindergarten class at Flynn Elementary School in Burlington on the first day of classes, Wednesday, August 31, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Late last month, at an event for parents at Burlington’s Flynn Elementary School, a parent distributed copies of a note asking others to consider sending their children to class in masks. 

“Masking request: A student in your child’s classroom has an underlying health condition that may place this individual at higher risk when exposed to symptoms of communicable diseases,” the note read, according to a photo obtained by VTDigger. 

Later that day, Flynn Elementary’s principal, Nikki Ellis, sent an email to parents about the “situation” at the event. The note, Ellis said, “was not sanctioned by” Burlington school administrators.

“While we encourage every family to make a decision about whether to send their child to school with or without a mask based on their needs and experiences, we do not currently require students or staff to wear masks at Flynn Elementary School,” Ellis wrote. “This is a decision that is left completely up to each family regarding how they would like their child to show up at school.”

The Burlington incident highlights the anxiety and uncertainty around masking, as children return to schools in which the Covid-19 safety rules of the past two years are largely absent.

In March, Vermont state officials rescinded their recommendation that schools maintain indoor mask mandates. Since then, state officials have encouraged schools —  sometimes strongly — to avoid mask mandates.

But last week, two days after the exchange in Burlington, the Vermont Agency of Education said that such a mandate would be permitted in schools, under certain circumstances.

After state officials received “several questions” about safety rules, Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French told superintendents on Sept. 1 that “schools may need to implement masking or other mitigation measures as a reasonable accommodation for students who are medically vulnerable.” 

The guidance came days after the beginning of school across the state, amid what some advocates said has been a fraught period for school administrators and parents of immunocompromised children. 

“What we were hearing was that it was often confusing to square up (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations, state recommendations, and guidance that had been issued by the U.S. Department of Education on the issue of how we reasonably accommodate students in the context of Covid,” said Rachel Seelig, director of Vermont Legal Aid’s Disability Law Project. 

Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, said the announcement was not a shift in policy. Rather, he said, the state was simply restating current law: Students have the right to an education, which could mean that schools must make accommodations so that students with certain medical conditions can safely attend classes. 

“We're noting that schools have a duty that predates — remember, predates — the Covid-19 pandemic, to ensure this free appropriate public education,” Fisher said. “And then they need to be attentive to the steps that they might need to take to allow students to participate in school.”

He compared the situation to schools where a student has a severe allergy.

“So you have a student who's deathly allergic to peanuts,” Fisher said. “You might need (to ban) peanuts for the whole school, right? Because that's how you're going to ensure that the student’s not going to be exposed.”

If a student has a disability, the educators and medical professionals responsible for that student can decide whether or not they require an environment where others are masked. If so, educators can add that to a student’s Individualized Education Plan, commonly called an IEP, or their 504 plan, two documents that set out provisions needed for the child's education.

“Students with disabilities have the right to participate in the general education curriculum, and be with their same aged peers — which we call the least restrictive environment — to the greatest extent possible, appropriate to the student,” Seelig said. 

Alyssa Chen, a coordinator at the Education Justice Coalition of Vermont, said the state’s new guidance was a “better late than never situation,” but said it came “without a lot of clear support.” The Agency of Education had not shared contact information for experts or provided clear resources to officials and parents, Chen noted. 

“There are a lot of questions from parents about how to protect students who are medically vulnerable,” she said. 

Chen said she knew of approximately six cases in which parents had sought to add a masking requirement to their children’s IEPs. In at least two of those cases, she said, students were attending school in at least a partially masked environment. In other cases, she said, parents had been told that mask mandates were prohibited. 

Russell Elek, a spokesperson for the Burlington School District, said in an email that district officials are in contact with the Agency of Education “to seek clarification” about French’s letter, and would be in touch with families if any policies change.

He noted that administrators had not yet ”received any documentation from any doctors recommending full-class masking.”

“As this work continues, it is important to know that we take documented cases of medically-fragile children and the accommodation needs for those students seriously,” Elek said.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not include information about 504 plans.

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