School systems shape mask-optional policies as student vaccinations lag  



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Amid rapidly declining COVID-19 cases and pediatric vaccination rates that appear low when compared to other age groups, local school district leaders and health leaders are moving ahead with plans to make mask wearing in schools optional when the state mandate requiring them ends Feb. 28.

The state Department of Public Health’s Feb. 18 COVID-19 report showed Connecticut’s positivity rate had fallen to 3.84%. More than a month earlier, on Jan. 6, during the peak of the Omicron surge, the test positivity rate had reached 22.81%.

DPH data on COVID-19 vaccinations reported on Feb. 17 showed that statewide, 37.6% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That rate is a little more than half of the vaccination rate among 12- to 15-year-olds across the state. The state reported the vaccination rate for that age group is 72.4%. 

Overall, Connecticut’s COVID-19 vaccination rate among all eligible age groups is just over 75%, according to DPH.

In communities around the Meriden area, most local pediatric vaccination rates were below statewide averages. In Wallingford, 34.79% of children between 5 and 11 years old were considered fully vaccinated. In Southington, the vaccination rate for that age group was 33.08%. In Meriden it was 27.53%. 

In Cheshire, pediatric vaccination rates were considerably higher: 51.79%.

Vaccinations among older children and among staff members in all four districts are considerably higher. Meanwhile, a COVID-19 vaccine for children under five years old has yet to be federally authorized. 

Cheshire School Superintendent Jeffrey Solan in a message to families sent on Thursday, outlined school and health officials’ rationale for going mask optional when the state mandate expires. 

“As the pandemic appears to be loosening its grip, we still have that goal of providing safe access to all kids and staff every day. When the Governor announced it would be a local decision, I solicited the opinion of the same three people I have turned to who helped us ensure that we were in school full-time last year and this year. They are our Executive Director of the Chesprocott Health District, our district physician, and our district nursing supervisor,” Solan wrote. The group identified three criteria for determining whether to mandate masks locally: test positivity rate, the rate of cases per 100,000 and the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations.

“The team felt that meeting 2 of the 3 of these criteria would provide a strong likelihood that our ability to have people access school would be uninterrupted,” Solan wrote.  

Solan stated the district had met two of the three metrics “to safely transition to a mask optional environment” effective March 1. 

They are what Solan said was “extraordinarily high vaccine prevalence” in the community and the school district, and a test positivity rate which has dwindled to 6.1%, below the 10% threshold officials had set as a rate for concern. The third metric, case rate per 100,000, was still above the 15 cases per 100,000 threshold, meaning that factor still hadn’t been met, Solan explained.  

Meanwhile, in all districts masks will still be required on school buses, where federal directives will continue to be followed. 

Solan and other district leaders acknowledged the importance of ensuring the safety of immunocompromised students, staff and their families. Solan said early on in the pandemic, tools to protect those populations weren’t available. 

“We reached the point where they are,” he said. “... The good news is there are more tools available to protect individuals who are immunocompromised.”

On Friday evening, the state Department of Public Health issued updated guidance to local school and health leaders that appears to be in line with steps local leaders were already planning to implement. That guidance stated, “our communities can begin to transition the management of COVID-19 in schools from a pandemic emergency response model toward a model that aligns with a more standard public health approach to the management and control of respiratory viral diseases (e.g., influenza).”

This model, the guidance stated, would focus COVID-19 response efforts to clusters of outbreaks in schools and when community transmission significantly increases.

In its guidance, DPH listed COVID-19 outbreak response strategies that would include a temporary local universal masking policy, reinstating student cohorting measures depending on the level of transmission, limiting outside visitors and notifying potentially exposed students and staff for possible testing.

Southington, Wallingford

In Southington, Superintendent Steven Madancy alerted families that the district would no longer require nor enforce mask wearing in schools starting Feb. 28. 

In the Feb. 17 letter, Madancy emphasized that continuing to wear masks is a personal choice “and it is important to respect the privacy and individual choice staff and students may make relevant to mask wearing. No one should question, judge, or ostracize anyone for their individual choice as they are not aware of everyone’s unique circumstances that may impact their decision whether to mask or not. Please reinforce this with your children at home,” he wrote. 

Officials say mitigation strategies other than mask wearing, including protocols around cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, along with distancing during lunches, will continue. 

Wallingford School Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi similarly notified families on Friday that mask wearing on school grounds would be optional as of Feb. 28.  

Bellizzi explained that mask wearing, while welcome, would not be enforced by school district staff unless required through public health orders, or if a localized outbreak of the coronavirus should occur.

“This determination will be made through consultation with local health officials,” Bellizzi said. 

Dr. Juan C. Salazar, physician-in-chief for Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said local leaders are making decisions around masks based on a determination of risk, similar to the measures Solan described. That starts with assessing the level of disease transmission and then assessing test positivity rates. Vaccination rates and protective immunity based on previous infections are the third factor. 

Salazar noted in the state’s largest cities transmission rates are still high and pediatric vaccinations are still considerably lower than in other municipalities. 

Salazar said although masks won’t be required by many districts, that fact does not mean they should not be worn. Parents should assess what is the risk of their children becoming sick themselves or the risk that they might bring home the virus, and thus infect someone else in their household.

“If you have a parent at home who is immunocompromised, whether because of Illness, cancer, chronic lung disease, you’re not going to want to bring the virus back to your house,” Salazar said. “Those children should mask.”

Meriden

Meriden officials similarly opted to make mask-wearing voluntary in school buildings. The decision was formally announced during the Meriden Board of Education’s meeting on Feb. 15. 

Lea Crown, the city’s director of Health and Human Services, stated in an email she and school department leaders regularly discuss COVID-19 mitigation strategies and had deliberated over the school mask mandate over the past two weeks. Crown said she anticipates further guidance from the state DPH regarding the use of scientific metrics to inform decision making. 

Local health providers, including the Community Health Center, will continue to offer vaccines to all individuals five years old and older. CHC hosts clinics at its State Street, Meriden location on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Meriden Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr. said the local decision to lift the school mask mandate “didn’t come just at a drop of the hat.” It was a common sense decision, he said. 

“Our mitigation strategies will continue. The extra people we hired to sanitize and clean will continue to do so. We will keep doing lunches the way we’re doing and the classroom setups the way they’re doing them,” Kosienski said. “... We’re going to continue to follow the rule.”

Meriden Federation of Teachers President Lauren Mancini-Averitt explained in an email that the union’s executive board and building representatives have discussed the phase out of masks as well. 

“I feel that masking is here to stay for many. In schools, we work daily on the social emotional aspect of our students, and frankly our peers,” Mancini-Averitt wrote. “We should continue to encourage those who feel comfortable with mask wearing to continue to do so. Some of our staff and students will double mask, wash tables, and continue all mitigation strategies until this pandemic is truly over.  

“We should as humans, teachers, colleagues, and peers continue to allow people to come to this masking issue in whatever way makes them comfortable and for as long as they like,” she continued. “I for one will continue to mask in the classroom and the building.”

mgagne@record-journal.com203-317-2231Twitter:@MikeGagneRJ



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