Parents report medical mask exemption denials in state’s largest district

ABC Science Collaborative memo advises Wake school board to make “approximately zero mask exemptions”

In this May 18, 2021 file photo, fifth graders wear face masks are seated at proper social distancing spacing during a music class at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

RALEIGH — Parents across North Carolina’s largest public school district, Wake County, have reported their attempts to obtain medical mask exemptions for their children are being denied by principals and administrators despite having the appropriate medical documentation.

Multiple Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS) parents report receiving a form letter from school principals denying their claim. The denial letters have been coming from the student’s school because the district placed the onus on individual schools for approving or denying masks exemptions.

A parent, who wished their name to remain off the record at this time, tells North State Journal that their requests were denied despite submitting a medical doctor’s examination report of their children and the doctor making himself available for questions. The school never contacted the doctor.

Additionally, the parent reported his children, who attend different schools, both received the same denial letter. He also said that in conversations with administrators, it was admitted there were no guidelines for rendering a decision on a mask exemption request.

Parents have noticed that the language on the exemption request form had been changed as of Sept. 16. The original form did not specify consulting a medical doctor, whereas the updated version does.

The newly added language reads “Update: Form must be completed by a medical provider licensed in North Carolina. ‘Medical provider’ is defined as a Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathy (DO), a Nurse Practitioner, or Physician’s Assistant practicing under supervision of a licensed physician.”

“The language states licensed medical provider. This change was made to clarify that opinions from chiropractors, nutritionists or physical therapists will not be considered,” WCPSS communications director Lisa Luten told North State Journal.

Another parent recorded her mask exemption request conversation with Curtis M. Brower, principal of Powell Elementary School, a magnet school in Raleigh. The recording of the call, reported by Carolina Journal, shows the principal dismissing pediatrician recommendations and demanding more medical data on the child.

“I have the power to make a decision whether this is approved or denied in my school, yes ma’am,” Brower told the parent. “The doctor can give me whatever information. If I don’t feel like it would suffice, I deny it. It is my choice.”

The form required to be completed by parents has language that forces parents to allow the district to talk to their child’s doctor directly. The form also has a line for the doctor to check, which says they will make themselves “available to meet with school officials and potentially other physicians to review the student’s medical needs.”

In an email, WCPSS chief of communications Tim Simmons told North State Journal that “Mask exemptions are not tracked by the district” and referred to the district’s guidance for applying for an exemption.

While it is unclear just how many denials have occurred in the 2021-22 school year, Luten did give some “mask accommodations” numbers for the prior school year.

“In the 2020-21 school year, principals approved over 200 requests for mask accommodations from parents. The accommodations range from providing students with mask breaks to granting exceptions for students who are unable to wear a mask for the entire school day or parts of the school day,” Luten wrote in an email to North State Journal.

While it is unclear how many exemption requests have been submitted, an ABC Science Collaborative (ASC) memo may be the foundation for mask exemption rejections.

“There should be approximately zero mask exemptions in the mainstream curriculum,” reads the ASC memo included in WCPSS board meeting materials for Sept. 7.

ASC’s memo also seems to imply masking should remain until mass child vaccinations can occur.

“We view masking as a bridge to widespread vaccination and can work with districts to leverage to relax (or strengthen) masking based on the district’s own data,” the ASC memo reads.

North State Journal has requested more information about the ASC memo from WCPSS and is awaiting a response.

The ASC was also asked to clarify the statements made in the memo pertaining to mask exemptions and responded in an email that mask decisions “are up to each school district,” but then later said there are “few reasons not to wear a mask.”

“According to CDC guidance, there are only a few reasons to not wear a mask: Masks should not be worn by children under 2 years of age, or by individuals with a disability who cannot safely wear a mask for reasons related to the disability,” the ASC wrote in its response. “Therefore, in the general school population, there should be few medical exemptions, typically less than 1 percent of mainstream curriculum student.”

ASC also said, “mask exemptions in the mainstream curriculum student population” should be documented by “a physician who is licensed to practice medicine in the state, board-certified in the relevant specialty, and who has personally examined the child.”

Alternatively, in their response, the ASC said that students in “adapted curriculum, meaning those with special needs, have more exemptions and that those students and staff should get vaccinated for COVID-19, if and when they are eligible.”

The ASC was not unclear in their position that masking should remain in place until mass vaccination of children ages 5 and up can take place.

“Until a COVID-19 vaccine is available for children ages 5-11, universal masking in schools remains a critical mitigation strategy against the transmission of COVID-19. Widespread vaccination will be possible with the anticipated emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for children ages 5-11 later this fall,” the ASC wrote. “This would allow many children in the 5-11 age group the opportunity to receive the two-dose vaccine by the end of 2021. Once families have the opportunity to protect their children via vaccination, school districts throughout the country should revisit mitigation policies—this includes policies related to masking.”

About A.P. Dillon 1313 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_