Local boards of education across Connecticut are deliberating the emotionally-charged issue of whether students should continue to wear masks in their classrooms in the absence of a statewide mandate that has settled the question for the last two years.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration plans to stand down the classroom COVID mitigation policy at the end of February. And while the House of Representatives voted late Thursday to give the administration authority to reimpose the requirements if the virus situation worsens, the immediate change finds districts in a position of either sunsetting the requirement or imposing their own policies.
The relatively limited warning given by the state has education officials in many towns moving quickly to offer guidance to parents.
In West Hartford, for instance, board of education chair, Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said officials planned to announce a qualified mask-optional policy on Friday afternoon, with other mitigation strategies like social distancing remaining in effect. She said it was not an easy decision for the board.
“It certainly was not done with ease,” Thomas-Farquharson said. “Any decision made regarding our young people has been done with vigilance because it is our priority to care for their safety and wellbeing. So decisions have been made based on the science and recommendations of our experts.”
If West Hartford’s COVID metrics worsen, Thomas-Farquharson said the board reserved the right to reinstate a masking requirement. However, the town benefited from high vaccination rates of both the general public and its school-age children. Thomas-Farquharson said more than 94% of children between 11 and 18 years old had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Meanwhile, Cheshire Public Schools released guidance Friday morning announcing it would adjust its school masking requirements in response to three metrics: community vaccination rates, COVID positivity, and new cases per 100,000 residents. Town officials planned to review the data on Thursdays and if they found at least two of the three metrics in “optimal” condition, masks would be considered optional for the next week.
“Masks have been proven to be a significant mitigating factor in the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Of course, the wearing of masks can also present challenges of comfort, audibility, and expression,” the Cheshire guidance states. “Our medical advisors have agreed that if we meet the threshold for two or more of these criteria, masks may be considered optional in schools.”
The policy will not go into effect until March, but as of Thursday, only Cheshire’s vaccination metric was in a satisfactory place, meaning masks would continue to be required until the situation improved.
Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said the question posed a “huge issue” for boards in some districts and officials in many towns were waiting for guidance expected next week from the Department of Public Health and the state Department of Education.
“Some districts do not think now is the time. Some board chairs think now is the time to make these changes,” Rader said. “They’re still all waiting to see what they will hear from the state Department of Education and DPH.”
In a Friday email to parents, Simsbury Superintendent Matt Curtis the district would wait on state guidance before making a determination. Curtis said the town board of education had heard strong sentiments from parents on both sides. However, he said Simsbury officials hoped masks would no longer be required soon and expected to have the necessary information by Feb. 23 when board next meets.
“In the re-opening plan that our district was required to submit last summer, when all trends were good, we were planning for a mask-optional policy in the Simsbury Public Schools,” Curtis wrote. “The Governor’s Executive Order superseded that position since this school year started, but it has always been our intention to move beyond mask requirements at some point.”
Rader said he expected some towns would seek to gather more input from their own public health officials and residents before arriving at a policy in the limited time available by the end of the month.
“They may do a public hearing, they may do a survey. There are a lot of ways to gather the information,” Rader said. “I’m sure districts would like a little more time but this is what they’ve been given and they will work through it with their superintendents and make their decisions.”
West Hartford’s Thomas-Farquharson said it was important that everyone in the community work together to help ensure the virus situation stays at a manageable level.
“Our whole community is accountable. We all have to be responsible,” she said. “We all have to continue practicing mitigating measures and interventions because what one does impacts us all. So we must collectively work together as a community.”