Mask Wearing for the Safety of Students with Disabilities

Image of teacher and student in mask

As Tennessee children return to school amidst a surge in Covid-19 cases it is important to consider how to best protect them, particularly those who are the most vulnerable because of disability or health condition. This a topic that is complicated but one thing is clear: empirical evidence shows that there are strategies to mitigate the danger of contracting Covid-19. The Tennessee Disability Coalition believes schools and school administrators should use the most rigorous models available from leading epidemiologists, in conjunction with guidance from public health authorities, to set cleanliness and safety protocols to reduce the potential risk of coronavirus transmission in schools.

One of the most important means of mitigation is mask-wearing. The Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control, American Medical Association and many other respected health organizations recommend the use of masks in K-12 schools to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

The Tennessee Disability Coalition supports the recommendations of these experts. The degree of safety that masks can confer to students outweighs difficulties presented by school-wide mask mandates. This is particularly true for students with disabilities and health conditions who comprise nearly 20% of all students in Tennessee. Mask-wearing can help limit exposure of students whose disabilities make them medically fragile to a disease to which they are particularly vulnerable and threatens their lives. It also allows students with disabilities who cannot afford for schools to return to virtual learning or to close due to rise in Covid-19 cases to continue to safely learn in-person and receive necessary in-person services.

Local school boards have the authority to decide if masks will be required in their locality. Without the requirement to submit continuous learning plans (CLPs) this year, many school boards have not yet developed needed plans to support student safety and academic progress in response to the pandemic. The Tennessee Disability Coalition encourages school boards to develop plans for the academic year that incorporate cleanliness and safety protocols including mask requirements for the benefit of continuous learning for all students including those with disabilities.

We recognize that mask-wearing can be difficult for some students with disabilities. For example, masks may inhibit speech-language development for some, and for others they may present a sensory issue. It is important that districts and schools recognize this and put in place flexibilities and reasonable accommodations. Just as they do to provide individualized education, schools should work with the student with a disability and family to develop the reasonable accommodation that allows that student to fully participate and comply with the requirements to keep them and their peers safe. We support all efforts to protect Tennessee students, particularly those with disabilities, and recognize that masks are a beneficial and potentially life-saving measure that does just that. 

For over 30 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has required public entities to make reasonable accommodations to policies, practices, or procedures so that individuals with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate. Each of us experience disability differently and most have become experts in how to accommodate our own individualized needs. We intimately understand that the need for specialized modification often inspires innovation. Developing masks with transparent windows over the mouth, masks made out of sensory-friendly materials and over-the-head hoodie facial coverings are examples of how we have innovated to protect ourselves and our communities through mask modifications or alternatives during Covid-19. We have compiled a brief list that links to the Southeast ADA Center guidelines on mask accommodations here.

If you or a member of your community would like to talk more about what accommodations might work for you or how to reach out to your school board please contact us at: or 615-383-9442.