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News Analysis Jan 19, 2022 11:50 AM EST

First grade student made to mask for SPEECH THERAPY in Washington school

McDonald said that when she expressed concerns about masked speech therapy, her son Beckett's speech therapist replied that "…having to speak with a mask on in his reality."

First grade student made to mask for SPEECH THERAPY in Washington school
Ari Hoffman Seattle, WA

Arianne McDonald told The Post Millennial that her son, who attends Port Gardner and received speech therapy at Mill Creek Elementary, both in the Everett School District, has been required to keep a mask on while working with a masked speech therapist to comply with what she has been told is a mandate issued through Democrat Governor Jay Inslee.

McDonald said that when she expressed concerns about masked speech therapy, her son Beckett's speech therapist replied that "…having to speak with a mask on in his reality."

She was also told that the therapist "...had clear masks but wasn't using them because they fog up."

McDonald told staff in an email at the start of the school year that Beckett was diagnosed with a significant speech delay when he was 3 and that in addition to speech services received privately and through the school, he was also receiving occupational services for a sensory sensitivity. As a result of his conditions, it was difficult for Beckett to wear a mask for an extended period of time.

"My concern is that he will go to school and his language will be hard to understand behind a mask. I would be sad after him working hard for 3 years, he would hit this road block.  At the supply pick up I realized his language is not coming through in a meaningful way with the mask on.  I am hoping there is a way to accommodate his special needs.  I would be happy to buy a shield or anything that is recommended so that he will be successful. He is a smart little guy and I would like him to be able to communicate at school."

McDonald told The Post Millennial that she asked for Beckett to be able to wear a face shield instead, but was told no. "I have no idea how long this is going to be a requirement, when (if ever) this policy is up for review, or the conditions (once reached) that would allow for unmasking.  My fear would be that they are not coming off, restrictions will only tighten, and that we might just end up with N95 masks."

Luckily, Beckett has been able to receive therapy privately (in addition to his school-base speech therapy) and wear a shield along with the therapist. McDonald said that she found a private office that does not put masks or shields on the patient or therapist but added that many parents do not have the insurance or financial means to afford private speech therapy.

McDonald said, "Since clearly-articulated speech requires correct facial and mouth movements, this seems like an unproductive environment in which to work with children who have speech issues.  I understand the need to protect oneself from a deadly virus.  However, we seem to be evolving from such a dire threat if one existed at the beginning of the pandemic."

She added that "Services delivered in this way are not helpful for my six-year-old son, who has received services for the past three years.  I have attempted to advocate for an alternative such as clear face shields, to no avail, apparently due to the mandate."

"Others have voiced similar opinions about school services for children with special needs. My child has relatively mild disabilities, but is representative of the frustration parents are facing in getting meaningful help through our schools."

In an email exchange with staff from September 16, 2021, McDonald was told, "Our current guidance for students is that when inside 'Regardless of vaccination status, when indoors students and visitors must wear masks at all times while at any district facility or in any district vehicles or attending any district event.’ As you know outside it is a little bit different.

The only exceptions for not wearing a mask inside are for those who can document in writing any of the conditions below:

o Those with a disability that prevents them from comfortably wearing or removing a face covering.

o Those with certain respiratory conditions or trouble breathing.

o Those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and those who provide instruction to such people, and use facial and mouth movements as part of communication.

o Those advised by a medical, legal, or behavioral health professional that wearing a face covering may pose a risk to that person."

The email went on to say that "A few things that help mitigate the length of mask wearing in our program, is that our classes are only two hours in length versus a full traditional school day."

It was also noted that "As weather permits, our staff is planning to take students outside while increasing physical distancing to provide a break/mask break part way through the class session."

Pivoting to outdoors has become common in Washington public schools. It was recently revealed that many school districts are forcing children to eat lunch outside even in the wet and cold winters in the Pacific Northwest.

The email did note that "Our staff will be using Instructional resources such as video and clear masks to help students be able to see lips when the primary learning target is phonics. Often the first few weeks of kindergarten our staff is learning to understand many of our students (those with and without speech challenges). It is my understanding during the actual therapy session our speech language pathologist are using Zoom and have other potential options available that they will discuss with you."

However, according to McDonald, solutions did not come to fruition. "The school does not seem willing to deviate from the rules. So we have masked speech which feels nearly worthless, because the therapist cannot see his mouth movements nor is he able to copy the therapist's mouth movements for instruction."

The email did note the possibility of exemptions, but McDonald said, "I was told he needed to meet the criteria for an exemption of the WA State Board of Health.  None of the disability requirements listed have anything to do with a speech delay.  So, he did not meet that criterion.  I did not try to get a note from my doctor for this reason, and because I did not think it was likely he would give me one.  I asked for documentation from his private speech therapist, but she said she did not have the authority to do that."

McDonald added, "I am speaking out because I think it is wrong and I know many kids only receive services at school. To qualify for this help (Individual Education Program) a child has to be 2 standard deviations from normal, so these are kids that have serious speech delays. I am troubled that many children may be getting years of masked speech therapy with no end in sight."

The schools involved and the district did not respond to requests for comment but following emails from The Post Millennial being sent last week, McDonald reported that staff contacted her multiple times on Tuesday. "They seem to be feeling the heat," she said.

According to McDonald, one staff member told her that indoor masking is the law. When McDonald asked which law, "…the staff member said she did not know, but said it came from Inslee and the WA State Department of Health."

McDonald requested an accommodation for Beckett at school speech and his classroom and was told that the staffer would "…find a mask with a hood attached."

She added that another staffer suggested using a shield with a hood attached but she couldn't find one. "I guess the school district did not supply her with one and that is where that ended."  She also said that Beckett was offered a clear mask, but he declined.

"No one let me know this. If they had, I would have said he has sensory sensitivities and is doing therapy with an Occupational Therapist privately to help remediate those.  Beckett only wears long sleeve shirts and soft pants.  If they expected him to wear something unfamiliar, they should have worked with me and his occupational therapist."

The staffer noted that the pandemic has been especially hard on children with disabilities. McDonald responded, "I told her COVID has not been hard on these kids, but the mitigation strategies have."

When contacted by another staffer the same day, McDonald felt that "…she seemed to really want to help make Beckett successful.  She seems to be bound by extremely restrictive rules from our Governor and the Washington State Department of Health."

"I asked if I could get a mask exception for Beckett from his pediatrician.  She needed to call me back and referred to the information she had from the WA State Department of Health and the CDC web site. After doing some research, she called me back to explain that the only exceptions that may be made are

1.  For a child who would go into respiratory distress with the mask on,

2.  Or if there was an imminent threat of self-harm."

"That is it. Nothing else. I feel children with disabilities have had their rights railroaded."

After all the conversations, one of the staffers said that they are going to deliver a mask with a hood to one of the schools in the morning so that McDonald can take it to Beckett's OT appointment.

"I am not sure of what Beckett's potential diagnoses are, but we have spent a year going through the process of evaluation at ICAN in Bellevue.  We will be getting results from a psychologist on January 24th.  We will then have more information and will probably need to have his IEP updated.  I hope this shield-hood combo does not ostracize him."

McDonald said that she elected to home school her son this year, partially due to the masking requirements that are detrimental to his improvement. "At home, he can observe our speech models in context, which is what I hope for him in the school environment in the future as mandates fade away."

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