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Local schools look ahead to mask-optional future

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Local school officials on Tuesday were still digesting a plan Gov. Ned Lamont outlined Monday to end the statewide mask mandate in schools.

Meriden Board of Education President Robert E. Kosienski Jr. said the district is not planning to require masks should the state’s mandate come to an end.

“With the Governor removing the school mask mandate as of February 28th, the Meriden Public Schools’ plan is to leave the mask choice to students and families and continue other mitigation strategies,” he said in an email. “We will have masks available for students and staff, and we will continue to share health recommendations with our students, staff, and families.”

On Monday, Lamont released a plan formed with state Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani and state Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker. It would eliminate the state mandate on masks in schools and childcare centers effective Feb. 28.

“Connecticut is seeing a dramatic decline in cases caused by the omicron variant, and children over the age of five have had the ability to get vaccinated for more than three months now,” Lamont said. “With this in mind, I think we are in a good position to phase out the requirement that masks be worn in all schools statewide and shift the determination on whether to require this to the local level.”

None of the school officials reached for this story favored maintaining a strict mask mandate.

Information on the details of the plan was still scarce and evolving, some local officials said.

Southington School Superintendent Steven Madancy said the state isn’t “bouncing” the issue to local school boards and superintendents, but rather is considering revising its mask policy to not require masks unless local boards adopt a policy requiring them. His understanding is that in the absence of a formal policy from the local school board, masks would become optional by default.

“The reality of the situation is it is not a local decision, unless the Board of Education decides to adopt a mandatory mask policy,” he said.

The date the change would go into effect is also unclear, Madancy said, since there’s a lag period between when state policy is changed and when new policy can be enforced, meaning it could be as late as March 7 before any change in the mask mandate could be implemented.

“The sooner (Russell-Tucker) gives us that guidance the better everyone will be because a lot of people are waiting for that direction,” Madancy said.

Southington Board of Education member Terri Carmody said mask requirements have been controversial throughout the pandemic and she hopes that if they become optional it will give families some of the autonomy they’ve been seeking.

“I am very hopeful that it will end the contentious board meetings that we have had, where the parents have been basically very, very upset about the mask mandate (and) thinking we as a board should have been doing something about it … we have to abide by the law,” she said.

Optional with conditions

In Cheshire, School Superintendent Jeff Solan has drafted a plan that would allow masks to be optional for students and staff as long as the town meets targets for two of three metrics –  vaccination rates, positivity rates and the number of new cases per 100,000 residents.

“We’re seeing much different conditions in our schools today, which gives me more faith that we can move more safely with a mask optional situation,” Solan said.

Though cases are declining in Cheshire and the state, Solan said they still wouldn’t quite meet the metrics they’ve established for going mask optional.

The most recent state Department of Public Health statistics released on Feb. 3 showed the town’s positivity rate is 11.9 percent, above the 10 percent positivity threshold under Solan’s plan, and the number of new cases per 100,000 residents is at 95 versus the 15 threshold.

“So we’re certainly progressing in the right direction, but given that we do not meet two of the three metrics, we would not be mask optional as of today,” Solan said in a video outlining the plan. “It is our intention to review these metrics on Friday, Feb. 25th to determine if masks will be optional on March 1. We will adjust on a week-by-week basis if necessary.”

He noted the district only has 10 students currently testing positive for COVID-19, which gives Solan hope the district will be able to make masks optional at the end of the month.

“To me that represents a dramatic decline … we were at 100 students a day after Christmas break,” he said.

Solan will be outlining the plan to the Board of Education during its next meeting on Feb. 17.

Not subjective

Anthony Perugini, chairperson of Cheshire’s Board of Education, said it’s important that any decision on masks be made objectively based on public health data.

He said the district is aiming for a solution that allows students not to wear masks while still making the health of students and staff top priority.

“Most of the board is anxious to get to the point where we can have optional masks and have safety,” he said.

Having worked closely with the Chesprocott Health District throughout the pandemic, he said Cheshire has the resources to make the decision locally.

But he has heard concerns from other districts with fewer resources.

“I can tell you there is board of education chatter across districts … some districts feel they are competent and capable of tracking and others feel they need help,” he said.

Educator concerns

Teachers continued to strongly oppose ending the state mandate.

Speaking during a public hearing,

Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias said the majority of educators who are members of the association prefer a statewide policy requiring masks.

“Ultimately, this means we should be looking for a statewide, science-based decision that reflects the needs of our school employees and the deep desire to keep our schools open. Here we are, mere weeks beyond a 30% positivity rate. We need to keep in mind that a high positivity rate means teachers and students are missing from classrooms because they have COVID,” she said.

Record-Journal reporter Michael Gagne contributed to this story.

dleithyessian@record-journal.com203-317-2317Twitter: @leith_yessian


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