CT mask mandate change requires school boards and staff

School districts and public health officials will have a few weeks to iron out their own mask policies, as the statewide mandate comes to an end of its course.

State officials at a press conference on Monday recommended giving local school districts the power to decide whether or not to require masks in public schools starting Feb. 28. The plan depends on a legislative vote to extend an executive order that allows the public health commissioner to mandate masks in certain settings.

Educators responded by asking questions about when the change would take place and how districts and school staff would enforce a local mandate.

The Connecticut Education Association has raised concerns about the February 28 target date, which teachers’ union president Kate Dias says at this point seems “arbitrary” — though she trusts officials to change it if necessary, she added.

“What I fear is that we really feel like we’re making this decision right now because of social pressures,” Dias said. “I don’t want to lose sight that the focus is really on health.”

The Lamont administration cited declining COVID-19 measures and the widespread availability of new and old tools to mitigate the spread, from N95 masks and home testing kits to vaccines and booster doses.

“I think this is a good place for us to look at moving beyond one size fits all,” said Department for Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, who called the new approach “an exit ramp for some of these mitigation strategies.

Some, like Bridgeport Superintendent Michael Testani, have questioned whether teachers should take on new responsibilities as a result of any changes instituted.

“I don’t want to and I won’t put this on our staff at the police, however it happens. If it’s optional for the kids and for the staff, then it’s optional,” Testani said — which could be regardless of parental preferences or vaccination status. “There are enough problems right now to try to provide high quality teaching.”

Some headteachers have welcomed the change, including the superintendents of Derby and Darien, where the district recently issued a public letter asking for more latitude. Yet the policy will shift what has been a heated debate at the state level to the jurisdiction of local school officials, which will likely result in a host of challenges for superintendents and school boards and teachers to enforce.

“I think it’s tough when every superintendent has to make a decision,” Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Public School Superintendents Association, told Hearst Connecticut Media. “But we are educators – we will make the decision based on what the Ministry of Health tells us.”

Local control

Even before the mask policy was brought under local scrutiny, school boards have been hot spots of the mask debate, as parents have flooded local meetings to speak out during public comments since the implementation of implementation of these rules.

“These are particularly difficult issues that boards have faced all year,” said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “Because just like whether to be remote or in person, whatever the board and superintendent decide, half the audience will appear to be one way and half the other way. “

Discussions in a few towns turned caustic, including in Fairfield where a special meeting in August got so out of control that board members, who in Connecticut are volunteers, had to call law enforcement to acquire help. Educators and school officials have expressed concern that these tensions will escalate at the local level left to their control.

“We continue to work with our districts to ensure that councils, and in particular council chairs, know how to handle disruptions,” said Rader, whose association offers workshops, sends out information and continues to hold meetings. members informed about navigating difficult conversations.

An association letter to the governor shared with Hearst Connecticut Monday morning urged the state to expand statewide requirements based on public health guidelines and relevant health data. They also called for concrete benchmarks for term expiry.

“One of the reasons Connecticut school boards haven’t seen much controversy over masks is the statewide rule that has rendered such discussion effectively moot,” a said Chris Parkin, who leads the local school board in Redding. “It has allowed local councils and governments to focus on the important work of teaching, learning and recovering from the historic disruption the pandemic has brought to our schools.”

School districts still have time to consult with public health before the date they can start making changes, but with a kaleidoscope of paths ahead, some challenges may persist beyond their initial implementation.

In Greenwich, school board chairwoman Kathleen Stowe told fellow board members to ‘expect a meeting at short notice’ and suggested widespread adoption of the vaccine should make it easier for them to ease the mask requirement.

“I cannot speak for my colleagues and we should hear from the public health officials concerned. But I can tell you where I am,” she said. “I pushed for the children to return to school using all the sanitary measures recommended at the time. Greenwich and our students have responded well to this pandemic; we have achieved high vaccination rates, and I think that this should give us the flexibility to make masks optional for our students.”

West Haven Public Schools Superintendent Neil Cavallaro said he has questions about hierarchy and jurisdiction that he hopes has been answered: For example, if the city’s mayor keeps a mandate in place, schools in should the city follow this mandate?

Cavallaro said he is also concerned about presenting dissonance for students if there are incongruities between where masks are or are not required, as well as the possibility of schools using more disciplinary measures. to enforce the rules.

“There’s been a vocal group of people who really want the masks to come off, but what worries me are the kids saying they’ll get the punishment or the suspension because they got it with masks,” he said. “I think our board is going to be split on that as well, which is unfortunate because they’ve worked really well together during the pandemic.”

Shelton and Trumbull superintendents have indicated they are awaiting next steps from the state, although Trumbull superintendent Martin Semmel has said he will recommend that the latter schools be masked once the state’s term is over. Status expired.

In Stamford, where a parent-led anti-mask protest is scheduled for Tuesday evening, city and school officials were also waiting to make decisions on masks, although the mayor hoped to announce a decision on a requirement to citywide by next week.

Too early?

Other health and education officials were concerned about the timing of the announcement, following the omicron push that saw a record number of new COVID-19 infections in Connecticut schools.

On Monday morning, Dr. Ulysses Wu, chief epidemiologist at Hartford HealthCare, highlighted the work of masks from a scientific perspective and shared what he called his “personal opinion” that officials might want to wait a few months before making them optional.

“I think maybe the best thing I can say is to at least get through the breathing season – which would be February – and then possibly looking at canceling it in March would be something we would consider,” Wu said.

Justin Harmon, spokesman for New Haven Public Schools, said Monday morning that the district will follow the advice of the CDC, city officials and the city’s health department in continuing mandatory masking in schools for the time being. .

“Even if the governor’s order expires and it were to cease to be a state mandate, we are still covered by the city’s mandate with respect to testing and mask-wearing,” said Harmon. “Regardless of the state-level discussion, we are in a pretty clear position in the City of New Haven with respect to the mask mandate. This is the best medical guidance at this point.

Testani also wondered if the announcement came too soon, when families and school staff might be more optimistic about the change in one to two months. He suggested Bridgeport might consider waiting until after the April break or until the end of the school year.

“It gets us out of this peak of omicron, vacation, and to the point where people can open windows more and get air in the classrooms, and kids can get outside a little more,” said Testani, though he added all the decision would be made with the local school board.

Contributing editors Currie Engel, Brian Zahn, Annelise Hanshaw, Ignacio Laguarda, Brian Gioiele and Amanda Cuda contributed to this report.