Masks and the Rights of Students with Disabilities

Masks and the Rights of Students with Disabilities

As COVID-19 continues to affect education, school district decisions about mask policies and exemptions have resulted in lawsuits about the rights of students with disabilities.

The claims arise under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The students have conditions that make it particularly dangerous for them to be exposed to and contract COVID-19, alleging that their rights were violated by state laws, executive orders by Governors banning mandatory masking, and/or individual school board decisions.

The ADA affords that persons with disabilities have the right to reasonable accommodations that provide them with meaningful access to public programs, services, and activities. When a board of education fails to make reasonable modifications to enable access to its facilities, programs, and services, a person with disabilities may bring a “failure to accommodate” claim. A failure-to-accommodate claim asserts that the defendant “…could have reasonably accommodated a person with a disability, but refused to do so.” (S.B. v. Lee, Dist. Ct., E.D. TN)  2021 WL4755619)

Four cases with similar ADA and 504 claims have been decided in three federal circuits, including the 6th Circuit, with varying results. On October 12, in a case originating out of Tennessee, the Court of Appeals outlined the ADA’s “failure to accommodate” claim, stating “This case requires the Court to consider the ADA’s mandate of social integration in an unprecedented context by addressing how a board of education must reasonably accommodate medically-compromised students when COVID-19 is now part of daily life inside their schools’ walls.”

The court granted a temporary injunction to the students with disabilities against the Tennessee Governor’s order that all parents may opt-out of a mask requirement and the school board’s decision to allow optional masking. The school district was ordered to adopt the universal masking policy it had in 2020-21 as a reasonable accommodation for the students. It also required the school district to report any mask exemptions granted, including the specific reasons for those exemptions. 

The 6th Circuit also determined that the plaintiffs did not need to exhaust their remedies under IDEA. Recently, the court issued an additional ruling on the school district’s motion to amend that judgment, because it alleged students and staff were refusing to wear masks. The court denied that motion, noting the district had not offered sufficient evidence or supporting legal arguments. 

The 8th and 11th Circuits also considered similar claims by students with disabilities. In the 11th Circuit, which includes Florida, two different federal courts declined to issue injunctions on claims under the ADA and Section 504. In one decision issued on September 13, the court held that the student’s individual health claims and accommodations required exhaustion of their administrative remedies under IDEA. (Hayes v. DeSantis [Dist. Ct., S.D. FL] Case 1:21-cv-22863-KMM, Spt. 15, 2021)

In a separate 11th Circuit case, an ADA and Section 504 challenge to a school board’s decision to end most COVID-19 mitigation measures, the court refused to issue an injunction, finding that virtual school was a reasonable accommodation available to all students and that the preferred accommodation need not be provided.  

In the 8th Circuit, a challenge to the Iowa Governor’s order banning school districts from universal masking decisions alleged that the ADA and Section 504 preempted the Governor’s order. The federal district court did issue an injunction preventing the order from taking effect, ruling that universal masking is a reasonable accommodation. The court also held that the state ban does violate ADA and 504 by excluding disabled students and denying them the benefits of public schools’ programs, services, and activities to which they are entitled.

What this means for your District:

Case law on masking guidelines is still developing. The 6th Circuit decision, while arising in Tennessee, should inform decision-making in our federal circuit. These cases are all temporary restraining orders, meaning there will be further proceedings with evidentiary hearings which may alter the outcomes, settle or otherwise affect the rulings. Stay tuned and contact one of our attorneys if you have questions.

Ensuring Graduation Ceremonies Are Accessible to All Viewers

In light of ongoing bans on mass gatherings, many school districts are moving to a graduation ceremony plan that involves a video or other online elements (e.g. video, PowerPoint, etc.). While virtual commencements may be almost unheard of prior to this spring, there are long-standing legal requirements that apply to this format just as they would to traditional, in-person ceremonies.

Traditional graduation ceremonies include many features aimed at making them accessible to students, family and friends, and school employees who have disabilities. Because school facilities are already subject to Americans with Disabilities Act design requirements everything from the parking lots, building entrances, restrooms, and seating areas are already accessible. Specific to the graduation ceremony itself, a school might have wheelchair ramps to access the stage, a sign language interpreter, and other accommodations.

The same anti-discrimination laws that inform the accommodations described above also apply to online services offered by school districts. In recent years, disability rights activists have filed hundreds of complaints regarding school district website accessibility. In many cases, the activists had no connection at all to the district against which the complaint was filed. They were simply scouring the internet for websites with obvious accessibility concerns. It is entirely possible that a similar approach may be used in relation to this year’s virtual graduation ceremonies. In any event, it makes good sense for districts to address website accessibility, irrespective of the pandemic. 

As such, and in our experience assisting school districts that were subject to website accessibility complaints, it seems that there are certain “red flags” that may have caused some websites to be targeted for complaints while others were not. Applying this lesson to virtual graduation ceremonies, there are some basic steps that can still be taken to reduce the risk of receiving an investigation letter from the Office for Civil Rights:

  • Investigate practical captioning options: Many online platforms have captioning already built-in, so it may just be a matter of enabling this feature and editing the automatic captioning. Captioning can stand in the place of a sign language interpreter if that is normally offered at your district’s ceremonies. Of course, many graduation ceremonies in the past did not have an interpreter and this has not caused widespread complaints. The idea now is to investigate what options are available in the online platform that you use for the ceremony and to use available tools to reduce your risks.
  • Pay attention to color contrast: School colors are a source of pride and frequently used in important rituals like graduation. However, if the school colors are low contrast (e.g. red and orange, green and blue) it may cause problems for people with vision-related disabilities. Consider pairing neutral alternative colors like black or white with a school color to avoid low contrast pairings.
  • Ensure announcements of the ceremony details are formatted for screen reader use: People with vision-related disabilities sometimes use screen readers to access electronic written information. Some file formats are less screen reader-friendly. PDF files and other picture type files can be problematic. Simpler can be better when it comes to conveying information in writing. A basic email or attached Word document is less likely to cause challenges.
  • Make access to the virtual ceremony accessible: A common challenge with school websites is that they are not easily navigated by individuals with physical challenges that prevent them from using a mouse. Consider emailing students and their families a link that goes directly to the virtual ceremony. The more steps that must be taken to get to the virtual ceremony, the more risk there is of an accessibility issue (e.g. a drop-down menu that cannot be easily accessed using keyboard tabbing, a link button that is not tagged, etc.).

The efforts taken by school districts to offer something special for seniors graduating under the current conditions are admirable. Paying close attention to accessibility for people with disabilities will help ensure that these celebrations do not lead to legal headaches down the road.