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Utah parents worry over school mask exemption note 'doctor shopping'

Virus Outbreak Schools
Posted at 10:41 PM, Apr 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-28 01:10:33-04

School is weeks away from ending for the year, but the mask-wearing controversy continues to stir contention just as strongly as it did eight months ago. As some parents show up to school district meetings and make a push to end the mask mandate in schools, others are expressing concern over a new kind of "doctor shopping" that they say is happening across the state.

Parents allege that medical professionals are handing out mask exemption notes for students -- some without ever meeting the child or parent face-to-face.

Exemption note 'doctor shopping'

Genevra Prothero, a parent in the Davis School District who runs the Facebook group Keep Hybrid DSD, became aware of the supposed fibbed exemption notes back in late March.

"There were parents that were even sharing doctors' names who would be able to write mask exemptions," she said.

Prothero said she wondered why this was happening when school is almost over. Keep Hybrid DSD parents began to look more into it, she continued.

"Some of our parents were asking some of the other parents, 'Which doctors can you recommend?'" she said of how some parents would message others to pretend to want the info, just to confirm it was happening. "[The other parents] would give the information through Messenger on Facebook, and other types of sources of social media."

RELATED: Parents ask Jordan School District to loosen mask requirements

Prothero has the receipts to show those communications. She read one of the screenshots on her phone, where a parent recommends a doctor. FOX 13 looked that doctor up and found she is actually a midwife in Salt Lake City.

"One of our parents asked one of their parents, 'Hi, who is a doctor that is signing mask exemptions?'" Prothero read. "And then this person from the other group said, 'It's Dr. so and so [name redacted]. And they are completely on our side, and many schools have accepted the exemptions including mine. They legally can't deny them. She only charges $45 for exemption visit because she wants all kids to be mask-free.' So that's a concern."

Another parent, who wanted to keep her name private, forwarded FOX 13 an email that she said is from the wife of a doctor.

"My husband is a naturopathic physician who has written many mask exemption letters," the email reads. "We will need the name, birthdate, and whatever the medical exemption you would like put on the letter for each person. It is $25 per letter."

The woman then tells the mom that she can offer a bundle price for all three children as well, for a more generic note.

From doctor of medicine to midwife

Prothero herself got six names of people working in the healthcare field and said she tried to reach out. FOX 13 has reached out to seven healthcare professionals supposedly handing out the notes.

They range from doctors to physician's assistants, naturopathic doctors to the aforementioned midwife.

When FOX 13 called the midwife's office, a woman said that they've been receiving a lot of calls from parents asking for mask exemptions. Upon asking more questions, the woman placed us on hold for some time and then the phone hung up. The office was unreachable after that despite several attempts to call back.

Prothero says two doctors did not get back to her when she called to tell them she was a concerned parent.

"When I called the other ones, I did leave messages to pretend that I was a parent and I was interested in an appointment," she said. "I filled out some email things that you can do if you want to maybe schedule an appointment."

She didn't end up going through with any appointments from there.

One father publicly shared his exemption note on Facebook and recommended that other parents go to a mental health professional for a note because they, "are the easiest."

Utah Medical Association urges no notes

The Utah Medical Association (UMA) says they've been hearing about this.

"It's certainly come to the UMA's attention, not just in southern Utah, but across the state," said UMA President Dr. Sharon Richens.

She explained that they still recommend masks in schools because the state is nowhere near herd immunity. Cases can still jump back up, and Dr. Richens said they have been rising again recently.

Dr. Richens explained that the UMA sent a statement to doctors, asking them not to write exemption letters. She indicated that there are very few, rare reasons for a child to be exempt from wearing a mask in school.

Even something like asthma should not warrant a note, she explained. And if a child's asthma is that severe, Dr. Richens continued, then they likely would be too sick to come to school.

She described how the students who need those exemptions for valid reasons are mainly special needs students.

"Exemptions for behavioral difficulty, you're going to find those most frequently in special ed classes," she said.

And their exemption would certainly not be popping up now at the end of the year, she indicated.

"Most of these diagnoses were well known before the pandemic," Dr. Richens said. "And I think that making them up to facilitate not having to wear a mask is really not fair to those folks who are at probably greater risk."

What school districts are willing to accept

Each school district has its own protocol regarding what they allow for a mask exemption. Some districts, like the Davis School District and Canyons School District, require the parent to fill out a district form.

The forms are nearly identical and require the child's healthcare provider to answer several questions, then sign off at the bottom. The physician must put their medical license number.

The Canyons School District said they only accept forms from a Doctor of Medicine, doctor of osteopathy, nurse practitioner or physician's assistant.

Jeffy Haney with the Canyons School District added that before a parent and doctor fill out the form, they ask that a student-support team, which includes the parents, meet to discuss if there are accommodations that could be made instead to address the student's medical condition -- for example, periodic breaks from mask-wearing.

The Granite School District explained that they contact the doctor directly to verify the mask exemption.

A form is required to be filled out by a medical professional for an exemption in the Salt Lake City School District, though a spokesperson explained that there are a couple of small exceptions.

Most of the school districts FOX 13 spoke with emphasized that the number of students with medical exemptions is extremely small.

In fact, in the Davis School District, spokesperson Chris Williams said it's 248 students out of 70,643 -- or .0035 percent.

Still, Prothero worries that any fake notes or forms unknowingly approved by a school district will put others at risk.

"I think that right now we're so close, people are getting vaccinated," she said. "And let's just hold off and wait for the CDC to say, 'We are ready to go.'"