The Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice has signed onto a letter stating deep concerns with the reported refusal of Utah’s school superintendents to enact mask mandates in the schools.
The letter, authored by Public Affairs Supervising Attorney Nate Crippes of the Disability Law Center, is in support of an investigation opened by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
“OCR’s investigation will focus on whether, in light of this policy, students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law,” the OCR wrote to State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson on August 30.
The DLC letter’s most pressing concern follows an August 25 report from the Salt Lake Tribune on a meeting between Cox, superintendents from around the state and local health officials. In that meeting, Governor Cox reportedly offered to enact a mask mandate via executive order, but superintendents rejected the offer because the issue of masking is too politicized.
“While we have long had concerns with the actions of the Utah State Legislature in enacting laws that prohibit Local Education Agencies (LEA) from enacting mask mandates and limit the authority of local governmental entities from doing the same, we are deeply concerned with [the] recent reporting from the Salt Lake Tribune,” the letter states.
“It is well documented that COVID-19 poses a greater risk to students with various disabilities. The CDC has recommended that students return to in-person learning with universal masking in place. Without a mask mandate, many of these students could not safely return to in-person learning. LEAs have effectively denied these students access to in-person learning with their refusal of the authority to enact these mandates.”
“Wearing masks is a minor inconvenience for able-bodied people, but it can mean life or death for the most vulnerable individuals in our state,” said Matthew Wappett, the Institute for Disability’s Executive Director. “People with intellectual and physical disabilities are more likely to contract COVID-19, and they have much higher rates of hospitalization and death than the general population. Students with disabilities have a federally protected legal right to receive a free and appropriate public education in our public schools, but Utah’s approach to the mask issue neglects these rights and place students with disabilities at increased risk of disease and death because of the personal preferences of a vocal minority.”
In addition to the DLC and the Institute for Disability, the Utah Developmental Disabilities Council and the Utah Parent Center have signed onto the letter supporting the investigation.