“We know who you are ... You’ll never be allowed in public again!” an anti-masker in Williamson County, Tennessee, screamed at a doctor shortly after the local school board approved mask mandates for elementary students.
“You can leave freely, but we will find you!” another anti-masker yelled.
The Aug. 10 board meeting drew national attention after it devolved into utter chaos, with protests, threats, and chants from anti-mask parents, some of whom had to be escorted out by sheriff’s deputies. Two weeks later, the mandate was extended to include middle and high schools.
But despite the furor, the mask mandate won’t apply to at least 30% of all students because they have been granted exemptions.
The mandate originally allowed parents to opt students out on religious or medical grounds. Then Tennessee’s Republican governor signed an executive order letting parents across the state simply opt their children out of having to wear a mask in school.
As of Sept. 3, a total of 12,580 K–12 students in Williamson County were exempt from wearing masks. More than 300 students are currently in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.
All across the country, school mask mandates have become such a contentious subject of debate that in some cases police are called to meetings to deal with hordes of unruly parents and school board members are quitting over threats and harassment.
But even when school boards vote to implement mask mandates, they’re allowing droves of students to opt out of them — essentially making masking optional — amid an exponential rise in child COVID cases.
Parents seeking to circumvent mask requirements in school districts have had plenty of help. Conservative parent advocacy groups are advising families on how to fight mandates, Louisiana’s attorney general posted sample exemption letters for parents on his Facebook page, and an Oregon superintendent encouraged parents to use federal disability laws to skirt the state’s mandate. Some physicians have also been accused of handing out bogus medical exemptions to students.
The mask exemption policies vary by school district. Some require medical exemptions to be approved by a doctor, and others only need a parent’s or guardian’s signature. Several districts let parents simply opt out without a reason.
School forms typically do not list the specific medical conditions that would exempt students from wearing a mask, but Jennifer Lighter, a pediatric and hospital epidemiologist for NYU Langone Health, told BuzzFeed News that such conditions are “very, very rare” and include developmental delays, some forms of autism, and craniofacial abnormalities.
“There really aren’t a lot of medical reasons why a child can’t wear a face mask,” she said.
While some parents have expressed concern about leaving such a decision to families instead of doctors, others said it is their right to choose what’s best for their child.
“I’m not a mask hater,” Kyle Creamer, a Williamson County parent who got exemptions for all three of his elementary school children, told BuzzFeed News. “But parents should have control of their child’s healthcare.”
Creamer said his exemption request for his kindergarten daughter was approved by the school within an hour.
Laura Langham, a parent in Spring Hill School District in Kansas, told BuzzFeed News that a lot of people in her community said they would make up any reason to put on an exemption form, “whether it was accurate or not.”
“I definitely think [parents] would just use the mask exemption form to make a political statement, like, ‘You can’t make me,’” she said.
Langham is planning to move her two children, ages 7 and 9, out of their district after the school board modified its mask mandate to allow parents to request medical exemptions without a doctor’s approval.
At least 443 of the district’s 2,634 elementary and middle school students have received permission to not wear a mask in school for medical reasons.
Of these, only 63 exemptions were certified by a healthcare provider.
“Leaving this decision to someone who doesn’t have an obligation to consider public health, like a doctor would, is risky, because some parents can and will choose the easiest option for their family,” one parent, Heather Hardman, said at a Spring Hill school board meeting. “It invites more COVID. It’s the farthest thing from protecting our community.”
As approximately 50 million public school students returned to classrooms last month, children accounted for 22.4% of reported weekly COVID-19 cases as of Aug. 26, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
While it’s currently estimated that only around 1% of children with COVID will develop serious disease that requires them to be admitted to the hospital, as more kids get infected, more kids will be hospitalized.
By mid-August, the number of kids getting hospitalized with COVID per week was almost five times higher than it was at the end of June, according to the CDC.
And with those under the age of 12 still ineligible for COVID vaccines — vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 are expected to be authorized later this year — public health experts have stressed the importance of wearing masks in schools to avoid the kind of widespread community transmission that could trigger another year of remote learning. One expert told CNN that children in classrooms are “literally sitting ducks.”
When Steven Fogg, a Clovis Unified school board member in California, voted to give parents the option to exempt their children from wearing masks without a doctor’s verification, he did it with the hope that they would be truthful.
“To automatically assume all parents are going to lie about it is presumptuous, because I’m assuming every parent wants what’s best for their children,” Fogg told BuzzFeed News. “Very few parents will make decisions at the peril of their children.”
Fogg estimated that almost 3,000 students of over 42,000 enrolled in his district got exemptions after the school board voted to allow parents to sign requests.
That number has dropped down to 277 after the California Department of Health clarified that students cannot be exempt without a doctor’s verification.
Fogg, who is an ophthalmologist, said doctors in the state are now “scared to death” after the Medical Board of California issued a warning in August that physicians could face disciplinary action if they granted exemptions without conducting appropriate exams or without finding a legitimate medical reason.
The warning came after Placer County officials were made aware that one local physician had signed around 85% of medical exemption requests from students in the Eureka Union School District, Michelle Eklund, a spokesperson for the Placer County Office of Education, told BuzzFeed News.
“That’s a cause for concern,” Eklund said. “This is a distraction from learning and from those students who legitimately need mask exemptions.”
The physician, identified by local news outlets as Michael Huang, denied handing out illegitimate medical exemptions, telling CBS13 that he gave them only after a “careful clinical exam” and that he was doing the work his peers were refusing to do.
“If I’m the only physician writing exemptions, that means all the other physicians in this state, in my area — in many other areas also in the state — basically gave up on their patients,” Huang told Fox 40. Huang did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
The California Medical Association (CMA) — an organization representing 50,000 doctors — also came down strongly against “rogue physicians selling bogus mask exemptions.”
“There are very few medical reasons and situations that would exempt an individual from masking requirements,” CMA president and medical doctor Peter N. Bretan Jr. said in a statement. “It strains credulity to think that a single physician would have dozens or hundreds of patients with valid medical claims for such an exemption.”
Brian Warden, a doctor in Leon County, Florida, was fired from a hospital after he was caught offering parents medical exemption letters for $50 each on a Facebook page called “Parents Against Masks.”
Leon County Schools is one of at least 11 school districts in Florida that have implemented mask mandates, going against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s ban on mandates — which was thrown out by a judge. DeSantis withheld funds from two of the districts that defied his ban, despite the judge’s order.
However, 8 of the 11 districts that have mask mandates accept parental opt-outs, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.
One of them is Osceola County Schools, where 900 students have tested positive for COVID-19 less than a month into the new school year. Parents are allowed to send notes to their child’s school simply stating that they are opting out of the mandate. So far, approximately 591 students from pre-K to eighth grade have opted out of wearing masks in school, Dana Schafer, a school district spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News. (The district does not have a mandate for high school students.)
When Terry Castillo, a school board member, suggested including a doctor’s note for mask opt-outs, none of the other four board members supported her.
Castillo told BuzzFeed News that she believes parents do not have the expertise and experience that doctors have to make these kinds of choices for children.
“For me, I trust doctors,” she said.
Medical experts worry that mask exemptions — especially when it comes to unvaccinated children — could trigger a cascade of events that school districts are trying to avoid, including another year of virtual learning.
“The purpose of masks is to minimize disruptions that COVID causes to schooling,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told BuzzFeed News. “So what would be the purpose of a mask policy if it’s something that could be easily exempted out of?”
Meanwhile, Republican officials are also helping parents skirt statewide mask mandates.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry posted sample letters on his Facebook page for parents who want to avoid masking or vaccinating their children because of “religious and philosophical concerns.”
“I do not consent to forcing a face covering on my child, who is created in the image of God,” the religious exemption letter stated.
The letter also said that masks lead to “antisocial behaviors, interfere with religious commands to share God’s love with others, and interfere with relationships in contravention of the Bible.”
The philosophical objection letter posted by Landry stated that the mask mandate “imposes risks on my child’s mental and emotional health by hindering his verbal and nonverbal communication with classmates and teachers for up to 6+ hours a day.”
In another Facebook post, Landry — who has been a vocal critic of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’s statewide mask mandate — said that “parents’ rights are worth protecting.”
“Louisiana is not governed by a dictatorship,” Landry wrote. “The question is: ‘who gets to determine the healthcare choices for you and your child?’ In a free society, the answer is the citizen - not the state.”
“Parental rights” has become the rallying cry for anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers in schools.
Moms for Liberty, a conservative organization that describes itself as fighting for parental rights, is leading the charge against mask mandates in school districts across the country, and its members are often seen among the crowds disrupting school board meetings.
Robin Steenman, the Williamson County chapter chair of Moms for Liberty, told BuzzFeed News that when the school district implemented its mask mandate, the group advised parents that they had three options: one was noncompliance, the second was withdrawing their children from the school, and the third was filing for religious exemptions, which she described as “the path of least resistance.”
But Gov. Bill Lee’s order — which lets parents opt out of mandates — has “put the whole thing to bed,” Steenman said.
In some districts, school leaders themselves are giving parents tips on how to get exemptions.
Marc Thielman, the superintendent of the Alsea School District in Oregon, wrote a letter encouraging parents to use federal disability law to seek exemptions from Gov. Kate Brown’s statewide mask mandate.
Thielman advised parents that while the mandate did not allow students to “elect” not to wear a mask, they could request an accommodation under section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the details of which he laid out in the letter.
“I see the Section 504 option as a lawful and compliant means for accommodating parents, and students who have deeply held concerns about the potential negative impacts of mask wearing at school,” he wrote.
Brown called Thielman’s actions “deeply appalling” and described his letter as “callous and offensive to Oregon parents and children with disabilities.”
“Instructing students to lie about their disability status puts them and their peers at risk—especially those students with disabilities who are unable to wear masks themselves,” Brown wrote in an open letter to superintendents and school board members on Aug. 16.
Thielman denied Brown’s accusations, telling BuzzFeed News that he was only responding to the large number of parents who had asked him if their children had the option to not wear a mask.
“Everyone thinks we’re usurping the mandate, but we’re enforcing the mandate,” Thielman said.
Thielman said that as of Aug, 24, his district of 300 students had received around 47 mask accommodation requests under the ADA.
He acknowledged there were families in his community “that just don’t like masks,” but none of them, as far as he knew, had asked for a 504 accommodation.
Thielman said that not having mask breaks last year created “huge medical issues” for his students with anxiety, ADHD, claustrophobia, and asthma. He said some of his students “get worked up and have panic attacks.”
“We’re not going to mask shame if kids want to wear a mask, and we’re not going to non-mask shame if kids can’t wear a mask,” Thielman said. “We’re very non-judgmental.”