TAMPA, Fla — With major Florida school districts like Hillsborough County Schools now requiring a medical excuse to opt-out of face coverings, it’s raising questions about just what constitutes a valid exemption and how the forms submitted will be verified.
As students returned to school Thursday, some pediatricians, respiratory and family doctors had already started fielding requests for an exam or medical exemption letter allowing some students to opt-out.
“They don’t want their children to wear masks because they think that there is a problem with that mask,” said Dr. Mona Mangat, a specialist in allergies and respiratory issues.
Physicians say reasons for signing off on an exemption are hard to come by.
Young patients pre-disposed to breathing issues are among those most vulnerable and therefore likely to need a mask, said Dr. Mangat.
“Medically, probably one of the only ones I could think of would be an intellectual or physical disability that would prevent you from being able to properly wear a mask. Other than that, there really are few and far between,” she said.
Dr. Randy Thornton, a pediatrician, agreed.
“If they are uncomfortable, try different masks. There are so many nice ones out there that fit comfortably,” he said.
To remain consistent, the Hillsborough School Board adopted the same language regarding face coverings and medical excuses as it did last year on its medical exemption form – a plan that was accepted by the state when the region was seeing even lower COVID numbers.
“Submit this form and medical documentation to your child’s school,” the district’s Tracye Brown said reading the language aloud. “District staff will validate all medical certifications.”
That could be more challenging this year. Hillsborough Schools says it had a total of 59 medical exemptions for face coverings during the entire 2020-21 school year.
Even with validation procedures in place, some parents have concerns. They point to a school district near Sacramento, California where nearly 85 percent of medical mask exemption forms had come from the same doctor. A physician name Michael Huang.
“The mask exemption letter, the one that we to you provide, each and every one of them is after basically - careful clinic exam,” said Dr. Huang. “Yeah. And we give it appropriately.”
Board members, who raised similar skepticism and concerns were told, while possible, the scenario is unlikely.
“It may be difficult for families to find physicians to sign medical waivers.” Said Dr. Patricia Emmanuel with USF Health, “Many of the Florida pediatricians feel strongly to not sign those waivers unless there is a true medical reason.”
“I imagine in our community that there are probably a couple of those positions that may tend to do that, but I would hope that the safety of their patients and the safety of our community and the understanding of the severity of the situation that we’re in would limit that sort of behavior,” said Dr. Mangat.
In Hillsborough, parents or guardians have a two-day grace period to get a medical exemption. It’s still not clear yet how many will obtain one.
It’s also difficult to compare this year’s figures with the 2020-2021 school year.
Although masks were mandated for all students, many were distance learning at home - an option not available this year.