PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The majority of requests for an exemption or “accommodation” from Virginia’s mask mandate in schools have been granted in Hampton Roads.
According to information from the school districts of Hampton, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Newport News, more than 400 teachers, staff and students have submitted applications to be allowed to drop the face mask in K-12 schools. The majority of requests have come from Virginia Beach.
Of that, roughly 375 of the requests have been granted, mostly due to medical reasons.
Norfolk Public Schools didn’t provide exemption information by deadline. A spokesperson for Portsmouth Public Schools said the district had not received any requests from staff members for mask wearing exemptions and didn’t have information on students. Suffolk’s superintendent declined to share the numbers as “the small number of these people would be easily identifiable.”
To receive medical exemption, most school districts have required the opinion of a doctor. For a religious accommodation, the process differed.
In Chesapeake, the religious exemption request is sent to a child’s building principal and must state “the sincerely held religious tenets or beliefs to which they adhere and explaining why their religious tenets or beliefs conflict with wearing a mask.”
“The granting of mask accommodations is carried out by a team from our Division of School Leadership and Supports. This division includes, among other departments, the Department of Health Services and the Department of Safety and Security,” said Christopher Vail, director of communications for Chesapeake Public Schools. “Reasons for possible denials include, missing or incomplete applications, use of an incorrect form, or unable to determine based on information provided.”
Some parents came to the Chesapeake School Board meeting Monday night criticized the district for not granting requests.
“Dr. Cotton, [the Chesapeake School Superintendent] the religious exemption form in which you ask parents to list the tenants of their faith is unconstitutional,” said Kim Scott, a parent of Chesapeake students.
However, Brad Jacob, a law professor at Regent University, said when it comes to the U.S. Constitution, he’s not sure that is the case.
“The religious liberty issue is a tough one because the Supreme Court really took the wind out of the free exercise clause 30 years ago,” Jacob said. “Are there religions that say you can’t wear masks?”
The free exercise clause protects a citizens right to practice religion as long as it doesn’t run afoul of a “compelling” government interest, according to the federal judiciary.
At this point, Jacob isn’t sure a court has ruled on if mask mandates reach that threshold.
“The system is trying to catch up, like in so many things. But we really are just seeing this play out,” Jacob said.
In the case of Chesapeake schools, they are allowing people to resubmit applications if they are first denied.
On the medical side of things, medical experts from Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters have said “medical exemptions from mask wearing should be very rare,” and developmental and behavioral conditions that may make wearing a mask wearing unsafe include:
• Developmental delays
• Limited physical mobility
• Severe autism
• Structural abnormalities of the head or neck, however, some of these children may be able to wear