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17-year-old asked to wear a mask during virtual learning Zoom calls

Luke O'Neil, who has learning differences, is frustrated by the request, but the school said it's practice to get students used to wearing a mask when school opens.

ROCKVILLE, Md. — A Rockville High School senior is in trouble for refusing to wear his mask in class... on a Zoom call. 

Luke O'Neil is a 17-year-old with learning differences, and his mom said he can't figure out why his teacher insists he wears a mask when he's alone on his laptop in his own room doing virtual learning. 

"I have no clue," he said. "For nothing. The school will never open!"

The schools said it's just for practice for children in the Learning for Independence Program, to get them comfortable with masks before returning to in-person learning. 

"The teacher and the Learning for Independence (LFI) team have been preparing the LFI students for the possible return to school by practicing wearing masks on screen for five minutes as part of the daily routines of the opening lesson," Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said. "Students absolutely are not required to wear masks for virtual lessons....this is just for practice." 

Luke and his parents said the mask demand comes right at the start of class, and Luke thinks it's so ridiculous, he shuts off his camera and mutes his microphone. 

"You don't need that," he said. "It's off-topic. "School just goes down. It's like worse and worse."

Luke's mother, Carolle O'Neil, said there are 20 children and six or seven teachers and aides in his Zoom classes for children with special needs. Luke feels like it's a huge waste of time and "boring" when the teachers spend long minutes trying to get all the children, one after the other, to put on masks while they watch through their computers.

"He needs to interact with people," Luke's father, Dan O'Neil, said. "Having a mask on prevents that.

Luke's parents said he's happy to wear a mask when he needs one, he just thinks it's irrational to wear one in his room. 

"Yeah, like a restaurant, or at a friend's place," Luke said of situations where he would wear a mask. 

In a year that's been full of challenges for students, especially those with learning differences, the online mask requirement has been just one more hurdle to learning for Luke. 

"If you remove these steps, it will be perfect," he said.

Luke's parents said they're so frustrated, they've had to hire a personal tutor to work with Luke one-on-one. 

As for Luke, he said he's "done" with 2020, because it has been a terrible year.

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