ALSEA, Ore. – An Oregon school superintendent is telling parents they can get their children out of wearing masks by citing federal disability law. A pastor at a California megachurch is offering religious exemptions for anyone morally conflicted over vaccine requirements.
And Louisiana's attorney general has posted sample letters on his office's Facebook page for those seeking to get around the governor's mask rules.
Across the U.S., religious figures, doctors, public officials and other community leaders are trying to help people circumvent COVID-19 precautions.
While proponents of these workarounds say they are looking out for children's health and parents' rights, others say such stratagems are dishonest and irresponsible and could undermine efforts to beat back the highly contagious delta variant.
Mask and vaccine requirements vary from state to state but often allow exemptions for certain medical conditions or religious or philosophical objections.
In Oregon, Superintendent Marc Thielman of the rural Alsea School District told parents they can sidestep the governor's school mask requirement by applying for an accommodation for their children under federal disabilities law.
Thielman said he hit upon the idea after the governor’s mandate generated “huge, huge pushback” from parents.
“The majority of my parents are skeptical and are no longer believing what they’re told" about COVID-19, said Thielman, whose district in the state’s coastal mountains begins classes Monday. "I’ve got a majority of my parents saying, ‘Are there any options?’”
In a letter to educators this past week, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown said she was shocked that Thielman was undermining her policies by “instructing students to lie” about having a disability.
Brown has mandated masks in schools and vaccinations for all school staff amid a surge in infections that is clobbering Oregon. The state has broken its record for COVID-19 hospitalizations day after day, and cases among children have increased dramatically.
Thielman, who is planning to run for governor next year, when Brown can't seek reelection because of term limits, said he is not anti-mask but is sensitive to parents’ concerns that face coverings can cause anxiety and headaches in children.
In some cases, he said, he believes those problems justify an exemption under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because they interfere with learning.
But Laurie VanderPloeg, an associate executive director at the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy group, cautioned that under the federal law, children would not be allowed to go maskless simply because they asked.
Under the law, she said, school districts would have to go through a formal process to establish whether a child does, in fact, have a particular mental or physical disability, such as a respiratory condition, that would warrant an exception to the mask rule.
In Kansas, the Spring Hill school board is allowing parents to claim a medical or mental health exemption from the county’s requirement that elementary school students mask up. They do not need a medical provider to sign off.
Board member Ali Seeling said the idea is to give parents “the freedom to make health decisions for their own children.”
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who regularly spars with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, posted sample letters that would allow parents to seek a philosophical or religious exemption from Edwards' mask rule at schools — or from a vaccine requirement, if one is enacted.
The letters have been shared by GOP lawmakers and thousands of others.
“Louisiana is not governed by a dictatorship. 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,” Landry wrote on Facebook.
Edwards accused the attorney general of creating confusion and defended his policy on face coverings.
“By adopting these measures — and ignoring those that are unwilling to acknowledge the current crisis — we can keep our kids in school this year and keep them safe,” the governor said.
In California, the state medical board is investigating a doctor who critics say is handing out dozens of one-sentence mask exemptions for children in an attempt to evade the statewide school mask requirement.
Dr. Michael Huang, who has a practice in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, declined to answer questions from The Associated Press but told other news outlets that he examines each child and issues exemptions appropriately. The California Medical Association issued a statement condemning “rogue physicians” selling “bogus” exemptions.
In a neighboring suburb, Pastor Greg Fairrington of Rocklin’s Destiny Christian Church has issued at least 3,000 religious exemptions to people with objections to the vaccine, which is becoming mandatory in an increasing number of places in California.
He said in a statement that his church has received thousands of calls from doctors, nurses, teachers and first responders terrified of losing their jobs because they don’t want to get vaccinated. His office declined to share the exemption letter.
“We are not anti-vaccine,” he said. “At the same time, we believe in the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The vaccine poses a morally compromising situation for many people of faith.”
Health experts such as Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, warned that such stratagems will sow confusion about masks and vaccinations.
The virus is "looking for fractures in the system," he said, “and we have plenty of fractures in the system.”
Oregon resident Jenny Jonak, who has an 11-year-old daughter with autism and health problems that make her more susceptible to COVID-19, said wearing masks is a “very small inconvenience” to protect vulnerable students.
“If a child really has a genuine reason, if there’s some sort of breathing or respiratory problem, then that should be respected,” she said. “But if not, then I don’t know what we’re teaching our children if we’re teaching them basically that something as simple as wearing a mask is something that they should bend the rules for.”
Har reported from San Francisco and Cline from Portland, Oregon. Associated Press writers Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.