Special needs student pushed out of Sarasota school for not being able to wear a face mask, mother says

Coronavirus

SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Ruby Rodriguez’s 12-year-old son started school at Oak Park in Sarasota County about three weeks ago. Last week, she says she got a call from the assistant principal saying her son couldn’t come back to school because he wasn’t wearing his face mask.

Rodriguez says her son needs an in-person education because he has autism and is non-verbal.

“How are you going to tell a parent ‘sorry, your kid that is severely autistic and nonverbal who barely wears his shoes because he takes him off, he is not wearing a mask so he can’t come to school, you’re going to have to do remote learning’. Remote learning right now for kids with special needs is a joke. That is not learning, they are not getting a proper education,” said Rodriguez.

She says she was told the only way to get her son back into the classroom setting was to get a district-issued mask exemption form signed by a doctor. She tried getting a signature from her son’s pediatrician before school started with no luck and again over the last several days, but keeps getting told ‘no’.

“I called three different walk-in clinics, I was told no. I called a facility in St. Pete for children like my son, I was told no. I was told no by another pediatrician here in Sarasota. I have been calling and so far I have been told no, no, no, no for this mask exemption. I don’t know what else to do. I feel like my kid is being brushed aside and children like my son are being brushed aside because of the mask wearing,” said Rodriguez.

8 On Your Side contacted school district officials asking what if any other options the family has and if the district is willing to work with the family on getting their student back in school. We received this statement from the district in conjunction with Oak Park School.

“The safety & well being of our students and employees is our district’s top priority. All of our schools are working through extraordinary, unprecedented circumstances right now during this public health crisis. Great time and care has gone into implementing the medical exemptions to the district’s face mask policy as safely as possible to ensure that all students, and employees alike, feel comfortable and safe as they learn & work at school. We will always work collaboratively with families to help resolve challenging situations.

Oak Park School has a diverse student population – many students have multiple exceptionalities, the nature of which can make it very difficult for a student to wear a face mask or face shield. The school has worked extensively with their families to offer resources and has extended supports to those in need to assist students with acclimating to wearing a face mask or face shield. As the face mask policy is mandatory district-wide, any student that is unable to comply with policy and cannot wear a mask or face shield at school, or is unable to procure a medical certification to exempt themselves from the face mask policy, needs to transition to remote learning. This is for the safety of all students and employees at each school community that are learning and working in-person at school.

8 On Your Side has learned Rodriguez isn’t the only parent having trouble getting the mask exemption form signed by a doctor.

Nikki French ,who is the founder of a nonprofit aimed at helping families with children with special needs, says her daughter’s pediatrician originally told her ‘no’ as well.

“I was originally told no with the mask exemption when I called my own pediatrician and then they told me sort of the reason why and I reminded them that my child has a medical diagnosis and that I am not doing this as an out, I am doing this to make sure that she still is given every opportunity to learn that she deserves. I feel like it shouldn’t be that hard for our families to be able to get this exemption,” said French

French feels there is no reason why children with autism, down syndrome, or any other special needs should have difficulty obtaining an exemption.

“It really sort of solidifies the disconnect that the district has between what is actually necessary for our children with special needs to have an education.. the education that they are a by law supposed to have and have a right to have. There’s a huge disconnect there. We already struggled prior to COVID to make sure that our kids with special needs are given the accommodations and the things that they need, and now we have got this as a hurdle and it is nearly impossible to get over this hurdle,” said French.

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