What Does Northam’s Masking Order Mean for 70,000 School Kids with Disabilities? Does Northam Even Know?

Governor Ralph Northam…. Oh, our bad, that’s a weasel.

by James C. Sherlock

My own preferred policy for schools is mandatory vaccination for school staff, recommended vaccinations for the kids and voluntary masks for everyone.

One of the advantages of that is that it is executable.

One of the disadvantages is that I have no influence whatever over the governor or health commissioner. Pretty big disadvantage.

But Virginia’s current order for schools is purposely garbled when addressing accommodations for disabled children, and the health commissioner understood that when he signed it for the governor.

The authors of that document had no idea how to handle the mask issue for the over 70,000 kids in Virginia public schools were labeled as “disabled” last year.

So they punted.

The VDOE build-a-table data dictionary defines the term “disabled”:

“A flag that identifies persons having an intellectual disability; hearing impairment, including deafness; speech or language impairment; visual impairment, including blindness; serious emotional disturbance (hereafter referred to as emotional disturbance); orthopedic impairment; autism; traumatic brain injury; developmental delay; other health impairment; specific learning disability; deaf-blindness; or multiple disabilities and who, by reason thereof, receive special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) according to an Individualized Education Program (IEP), Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP), or service plan.”

Here are the figures for disabled children in 2020-21

  • 11,500 with autism
  • 14 deaf/blind
  • 6,300 developmental delay
  • 3,600 emotionally disturbed
  • 2,650 intellectual disabilities
  • 1,350 multiple disabilities
  • 234 orthopedic impairments
  • 18,282 specific learning disabilities
  • 10,000 speech or language impairments
  • 128 traumatic brain injured

So, you say, the order offers an exemption for those kids. Well, here it is:

“Persons with health conditions or disabilities that prohibit wearing a mask. Nothing in this Order shall require the use of a mask by any person for whom doing so would be contrary to his or her health or safety because of a medical condition. Adaptations and alternatives for individuals with health conditions or disabilities should be considered whenever possible to increase the feasibility of wearing a mask to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading if it is not possible to wear one.”

Seventy thousand kids. Certainly they are more vulnerable than non-disabled kids. Is this code for stay home? Put their desks outside?

Can anyone decipher what that last sentence “orders” for those children? Me neither, and English is my native tongue.

That punt went out of bounds on the governor’s own one-yard line.

I have two questions:

  • What does “whenever possible increase the feasibility of wearing a mask if it is not possible to wear one” even mean?
  • Do the governor and the health commissioner read these orders before signing them?

I am sure they will race to answer.

My suggestion is to take a look a California’s policy. Virginia, lacking its own ideas, may wish to copy California’s and change the letterhead.

Just a thought.