As Daniel Crispino made his rounds to several Meriden elementary schools throughout the day Monday, he encountered a sight he hadn’t seen for close to two years — smiling faces, students and teachers alike, in classrooms.
“I got to see faces. I got to see more smiles. That part of it was really awesome,” said Crispino, who is the district’s director of school leadership for its elementary schools.
Upon the expiration of the state’s school mask mandate this week, local school officials and school boards opted to make mask wearing optional in their respective buildings — decisions that became effective Monday.
Officials did not have precise counts for how many students and staff members had opted to go mask-free. But in many scenarios, it appeared the majority of students and their families had opted to shed the mask. Still, there were some classrooms and buildings where the opposite was in fact true. In the city’s high schools, Maloney and Platt, for example, many students and staff chose to continue wearing masks.
Crispino observed that the rate at which students and staff opted not to wear masks was something that varied across the district. ‘A long two years’
In Southington, school Superintendent Steve Madancy made an observation similar to Crispino’s after he had visited DePaolo Middle School. At one point during that visit, Madancy walked by a music class where the majority of students were singing.
“It sounds very different than behind the muffled sounds of masks,” Madancy said, adding there had been an overall sense of excitement in schools — after what he described as “a long two years” that had included remote learning and the mandatory mask wearing.
There are still some areas in school buildings where mask wearing will be required. For example, when students must visit school nurses’ offices, they will still be required to wear a mask as a precaution.
And staff will continue to have masks to provide for students who request them.
In Cheshire, Superintendent Jeffrey Solan described Monday as “a fairly typical day of school with the exception that about 60% of our students were not wearing masks.”
Solan described a similar estimate for the percentage of Cheshire schools staff members who chose not to wear masks.
“I think everyone is excited to be taking a significant step back towards normalcy,” Solan wrote.
While circumstances could change based on the spread of COVID-19 in communities outside of school walls, officials sounded cautious about implementing local mask mandates in the future.
Public health data continues to show declining COVID-19 cases after the late December, early January spike. One reference point: the two-week period from Dec. 26, 2021 to Jan. 8, 2022 in Meriden alone. During that span, city health officials reported 2,656 new cases. The test positivity rate during that time was 35.5%. Nearly a month and a half later, during the two-week stretch between Feb. 6 to Feb. 19, the number of new cases had dwindled to 106 cases. Meriden’s test positivity rate during that period was 5.3%.
If one community experiences a spike in cases, it’s likely other communities would see similar increases.
“So it’s not something I think we would do locally alone,” Southington’s Madancy said of the hypothetical scenario of reinstating masks. And it would require discussing the matter at the Board of Education level.
“To mandate masks now requires either a board policy or the state would have to mandate them again,” Madancy said. Continuing to adjust
Officials are no longer concerned about shortages of available COVID-19 tests and the shortages of masks for those who choose to wear them. Supplies of both are strong.
Leaders expressed optimism that cases will continue to decline with warmer weather approaching.
As circumstances change, educators and health staff will continue to make adjustments — some of them on the fly.
Over the weekend, educators had to quickly update their earlier communications with families after the Centers for Disease Control revised its earlier requirements that masks be worn on school buses. As of Friday, the CDC had lifted the school bus mask requirement.
Wallingford Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi explained in an email to the Record-Journal that district leaders “worked quickly to inform all stakeholders of this change.” That update went out to families Friday afternoon.
Throughout the region, officials didn’t have precise figures for how many staff members had decided to forego masks. It appeared that the split was down the middle.
Meriden Superintendent Mark D. Benigni said a focus now is not on mandates, but on other areas, like making sure masks are available for those who want to to wear them.
“It’s making sure we’re creating an environment where everyone is comfortable,” Benigni said, adding educators will continue to be mindful to maintain climates where individuals are respectful of each others’ decisions around mask wearing.
“We continue to see positive trends on the data. And we will continue to track that information,” Benigni said, adding that other mitigation strategies, distancing, hand washing and cleaning protocols will continue as they have been.
“As the numbers change, we might look differently at how we do our operations. But right now, the only change is the mask option,” Benigni said.
Benigni acknowledged the timing of the announcement regarding masks in buses may have caused some confusion. Officials were quick to communicate the change to families upon learning of it.
In Wallingford, mitigation measures will continue similar to how they are in Meriden, Bellizzi explained. Day went ‘exceedingly well’
Bellizzi, like her counterparts in other districts, visited schools in Wallingford to observe the day, which she said “has gone exceedingly well.”
“We have many students, across all grade levels, choosing not to wear a mask but also, we have many students and staff who are opting to continue wearing masks. As you would expect from our students and staff, everyone is supporting each other’s decisions and our day was focused on learning,” Bellizzi wrote.
Meriden Federation of Teachers union president Lauren Mancini-Averitt, who teaches at Maloney, said the majority of students in her classes chose to wear masks.
“Here, I think the kids were not necessarily done with them,” Mancini-Averitt said.
Overall, the district’s communication around the changing guidelines has been effective.
“I think they’ve done the best they can with difficult situations because the guidance has been changing.”
Now Mancini-Averitt and other educators are looking forward to spring — when they can open classroom windows again and even bring their own classrooms outdoors.
Gwen Samuel, a Meriden parent and founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, said there are mixed feelings among families about lifting mask mandates.
“While there are those who agree with the loosening of mandates, there are also those families that have lost loved ones,” Samuel said, adding for many, the habits of wearing masks “have been formed.”
The lifting of mandates doesn’t “absolve” people of their responsibilities to maintain safe environments and to teach children personal responsibility, Samuel explained.
“We can’t ignore that the pandemic happened,” she said.
The impact of the pandemic on students’ social and emotional well-being is something on the mind of education leaders, who have promised to invest COVID-19 relief funds to address those concerns.
Samuel noted mental health concerns had predated the pandemic. COVID-19 helped shine a light on those concerns, while adding new ones.
“Because of the pandemic, kids have been isolated for so long,” Samuel said, adding schools, regardless of their quality, still provide a structure for children.
However, she said, “pandemic politics have kids all over the place.”
Maria Cordero has grandchildren who attend Nathan Hale Elementary School. Cordero said while she would prefer they wear masks, that decision is up to their mother.
“They’re fine with that — not wearing the mask,” Cordero said. The next shift
One thing Cordero is concerned about is the potential for new concerns related to bullying, which had been an issue before the pandemic.
“I’m praying to God that these teachers and superintendent are prepared for” possible increases in bullying and related behaviors,” Cordero said. “... They’ve got to pay extra attention on the buses, in the classrooms, in the cafeteria.”
Crispino pointed out that while the rate of mask wearing may have fluctuated by building, there was one constant on Monday: learning continued regardless of whether masks were worn or not.
“I think it was a tremendous day of productive learning,” Crispino said.
With the change in policy come other shifts: morning and afternoon announcements no longer include reminders about mask wearing expectations, which had been part of schools’ routines for more than a year and a half.
“For that to have happened so long and all of a sudden to have masks be optional that part was obviously a shift,” Crispino said.
Signs about mandatory masks were removed throughout school buildings.
Some mitigation measures remain in place — distancing in cafeterias during meal waves, for example.
Mask breaks will continue to be afforded for those wearing them.
While mask wearing may have become a bitter point of friction among adults outside of school walls, officials found the opposite to be true inside their buildings when it came to students, who generally followed the requirements without complaints.
“These kids and these families have been nothing short of amazing,” Crispino said. “And not just them, but the teachers.”
Crispino expressed hope that mask wearing would remain optional.
“This is a long road,” he said. “Hopefully we’re on the path of not having to go backwards.”