Gov. Ned Lamont (Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie) Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Amidst a surge in COVID cases driven by the delta variant, school superintendents and teachers unions are waiting to see if Gov. Ned Lamont will continue a statewide policy requiring masks in Connecticut classrooms as schools open.

The first day of school will arrive in some towns later this month and so far, Lamont has held off on taking a firm stance on whether he will continue a school mask mandate, which last year proved divisive among some parents. 

Lamont signed an executive order Thursday that gives local officials the ability to implement mask mandates at businesses in their communities. As of now an executive order already in place requires masks in schools but Lamont has asked for more time to decide whether to keep the policy or strongly recommend masks and leave the decision up to local officials.

But it’s a decision which some local officials would prefer the governor make for them, according to Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

“The majority of superintendents would like to see a mandate at the state level,” Rabinowitz said Wednesday. “The American Pediatrics Association, the [Centers for Disease Control] guidance, it’s all pointing to masks for all. The majority of superintendents are hoping that the governor will issue that mandate at least to open school.”

Last month the CDC recommended masks for all students. Since then, Connecticut’s COVID transmission rates have risen to the point where the agency is recommending everyone wear masks in indoor public settings, regardless of their vaccination status. 

Rabinowitz said the school requirement could be reevaluated later in the year, but said it would allow administrators to focus on safely opening their schools rather than spend time debating the mask requirements with parents. If the governor opts to make masks a strong recommendation rather than a statewide mandate, it would leave some superintendents in a tough position, she said.

“I think it will put them in a very rough spot,” Rabinowitz said. “It’s one more thing on their plate to make a decision about a thing that’s never going to make everybody happy. You really have to expend a lot of energy on that because you’ve got to talk with the people that don’t agree with you, talk about why you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re repeating that 169 times.”

Asked Wednesday, Lamont agreed local administrators are under pressure to adopt COVID policies. But the governor said he heard them asking for recommendations from him rather than mandates.

“Most that I’ve heard from would like a strong recommendation,” Lamont said. “They’re getting a lot of heat from parents on one side, parents on the other. School boards are back and forth. Take the heat off. Give us some real clarity. That’s what they’re asking.”

The governor said the coronavirus situation continued to evolve quickly. He pointed to the United Kingdom where infection rates have begun to subside after spiking in response to the delta variant. 

Connecticut teachers unions are also hoping Lamont arrives soon at a decision. In a Thursday statement Mary Yordon, AFT CT vice president for PreK-12 educators, said vaccines and masks were effective ways to reduce spread of the virus. 

“We are eager to return to in-person instruction without risking our health,” Yordon said. “We will wear masks if that is required for the safety of our members and the school community. Our union members wish nothing more than to return to no-mask, in-person classrooms. Such convenience and comfort should not come at a risk to anyone’s health.”

Last week, Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said teachers were looking to the state to ensure that all school districts follow the CDC’s guidance including masking. 

“The consequences of not wearing masks means a return to a revolving door of hybrid and remote learning, causing more disruptions for our students and their education,” Dias said.

Meanwhile, the school mask requirement has been staunchly opposed by a group of Connecticut parents, who have organized under the private Facebook group Unmask Our Kids CT and held rallies and protests across the state. According to the group’s website, more than 12,800 people had signed a petition to end mask mandates as of last month.

A group of Connecticut parents also sued the governor seeking to have the school mask requirement ruled unconstitutional by a Superior Court judge. However, in May the judge upheld the order’s constitutionality.