Barth Keck

Let the unmasking begin.

Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill last week giving ultimate authority over school masking to the state education commissioner. Republicans in the House and Senate opposed it because they want parents to have the choice. Either way, the point appears moot, considering most Connecticut school districts will make masks optional in the coming weeks.

School boards from Greenwich to West Hartford, and from New Milford to Stafford decided last week to lift the mandatory mask policies and will go optional on March 1. Most remaining districts are waiting a bit longer, including Stamford, which is going mask-optional on March 15, and Bridgeport, which will transition on March 31.

Many districts made their decisions even before the Department of Public Health had released two documents of guidance late Friday. The move toward mask-optional policies is not surprising, given the improving COVID metrics in Connecticut.

Then again, have we really seen the last of the coronavirus? The current situation in Europe indicates otherwise.

“At the beginning of February, Denmark became the first major country to lift the last of its COVID-19 restrictions and effectively declare its part in the pandemic over,” reports Andrew Romano of Yahoo News. “Since then, however, Denmark has continued to record more COVID-19 cases per capita than nearly anywhere else in the world, and both COVID hospitalizations and deaths have shot up by about a third.”

Even so, the Scandinavian country is taking a “let the epidemic roll” attitude because “overall mortality in Denmark in all age categories has now fallen into the normal spectrum as Omicron has become fully dominant.”

Makes sense for Connecticut to take a similar “let it roll” approach, right? Well, maybe. But then again …

“A future variant of COVID-19 could be much more dangerous and cause far higher numbers of deaths and cases of serious illness than Omicron, leading UK scientists have warned,” reported The Guardian last week. “As a result, many of them say that caution needs to be taken in lifting the last COVID restrictions in England, as Boris Johnson plans to do [this] week.”

So which is it? Should we jubilantly rip off our masks on March 1, or should we ease our way into this latest COVID frontier? The answer is, There is no single ‘right’ answer. And that makes no one happy.

A major frustration from the start of the pandemic has been the uncertainty, the seemingly ever-changing information and parameters. Such ambiguity doesn’t square with our polarized, social-media-curated world where people not only want definitive answers; they want answers that please them. But such either-or thinking is simplistic and fallacious.

What’s more, once we decide upon an answer – either “masks are essential safeguards” or “masks are an infringement on our rights” – we close our minds to new information that might challenge us.

“The information presented when we’re first introduced to a new subject or fact is hard to shake, even if we later find out it is wrong or in need of a revision,” explains tech writer Charlie Warzel. “Anecdotally, I feel like I see this all the time in my life with regard to COVID responses and procedures.”

To be honest, I’ve been a proponent of masks throughout the pandemic and am inclined to favor information that supports that view. One recent article, for instance, explains how one-way masking the result of making masks optional – is seriously flawed. Another highlights the specific dangers of mask-optional policies for millions of immunocompromised people.

At the same time, I also admit that I’ve grown weary of wearing a mask to school every day, and I feel for my students who have done the same. Plus, as a fully vaccinated and boosted individual, I don’t feel as vulnerable to COVID. So why shouldn’t I remove my mask in the classroom? Again, it’s not that simple: I feel a social obligation to others, and the least I could do is wear a mask so I don’t unwittingly spread the virus.

Other teachers are also split on the issue, according to a recent survey by the Connecticut Education Association. A little more than half (55%) still favor a mask requirement, while 40% want the mask mandate to end, and 5% are unsure.

Despite all of this uncertainty, I am sure of one thing: I support the State Department of Education’s authority over school masking since that means it can reimplement a statewide mask mandate if needed. I sincerely hope the SDE remains vigilant and works with the Department of Public Health and local health departments to monitor COVID. That approach contributes to the common good and, for me, that’s the most important metric. The virus might be abating right now, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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