There is an interesting fight unfolding at Edgewood College in Wisconsin over mask mandates. English Professor Susan Rustick is autistic and the mask causes trauma and a sense of claustrophobia. The college however denied an exemption and offered instead the option of teaching behind a plastic barrier. Rustick was told that such a barrier is useless in controlling spread and can actually increase the chances of contracting the virus. The result could be another lawsuit by a professor over university mandates. Usually, these fights have centered on vaccinations but mask mandates could raise medical objections. Rustick was placed on leave by the college.
Rustick claims to be on the autism spectrum and that status does qualify as a disability under the American Disabilities Act. That is what makes this fight so interesting. Rustick asked to teach virtually but the school refused. Many schools are fighting to return to in-person classes as opposed to remote learning. There are strong financial and pedagogical reasons for such policies.
However, like vaccine mandates, there should be exceptions for medical conditions and disabilities. Rustick told the Wisconsin State Journal that she feels like she is “suffocating” when wearing a mask and “it’s intolerable.”
The college does not appear to challenge her autistic status or that masks can be traumatic for such individuals. Notably, the college claimed that allowing virtual classes would constitute an “undue burden.” That language is notably similar to the “undue hardship” defense under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A) (noting that disability discrimination includes “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business of such covered entity“) (emphasis added); see also U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391, 402 (2002) (“Once the plaintiff has made this showing [that an accommodation seems reasonable on its face], the defendant/employer then must show special (typically case-specific) circumstances that demonstrate undue hardship in the particular circumstances.”).
The accommodation offered by the college was teaching behind plastic. Yet, news coverage on such options has questioned the effectiveness of the barriers, which can make a room more dangerous by slowing down air flow. If that is true, it would hardly be a reasonable accommodation. It would not, as required by the Department of Labor, “mak[e] it possible for an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.”
Since Rustick declined the plastic barrier, the college wrote that, “[b]ecause you and we have not been able to identify any other options, Edgewood will excuse you from all obligations under your appointment letter and considers it to be null and void.”
I am not sure why other obvious options would not apply. At GWU, I teach without a mask so long as I stay six feet from any students. We are all tested every two weeks and we offer remote options for anyone feeling poorly or testing positive for Covid-19. If that is not acceptable, I am not sure why remote learning is not possible for faculty with an established physical or mental condition.
In other words, Rustick may have a case.