On Monday, the Connecticut State Senate will consider two bills, one to extend the civil preparedness and public health emergencies through June 30 and the other to sign eleven of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders into law.
The most notable COVID-related restriction up for extension is the mask mandate in all k-12 schools and childcare settings. The bill, by recommendation of the Governor, the Commissioner of Public Health and the Commissioner of Education, would extend the mask mandate from Feb. 15 to Feb. 28, at which point the decision on masking would be left to the local board of education and school administrators to determine how to proceed.
“Connecticut is seeing a dramatic decline in cases caused by the Omicron variant, and children over the age of 5 have had the ability to get vaccinated for more than three months now,” Lamont said in a press release on Monday. “With this in mind, I think we are in a good position to phase out the requirement that masks be worn in all schools statewide and shift the determination on whether to require this to the local level.”
But the bill passed by the House on Thursday, would also grant the Departments of Public Health and Education power over local school districts to reinstate mask mandates if they saw fit between Feb. 28 and June 30.
Connecticut is one of several states easing mask mandates. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced Monday that masks would no longer be required in schools beginning the second week of March. Massachusetts will end its mask mandate in schools on Feb. 28. In New York, the school mask mandate will expire Feb. 21.
In preparation for the likely passage of these two bills in the Connecticut legislature, local superintendents and school boards are working to determine how the decision on whether to continue requiring masking of their staff and students will be made.
“I will be working with the health authorities and the medical director over the next few days. We will also await the guidance from the department of public health,” said Jan Perruccio, superintendent of Old Saybrook Public Schools. “How the decision will be made is undecided at this time.”
New London Board of Education Chair Elaine Maynard-Adams said the board would consider the recommendations of public health officials when making the decision.
“We’re a school system. We believe in science,” Maynard-Adams told CT Examiner. “We’re absolutely going to listen to the opinion of the medical professionals.”
Darien Superintendent Alan Addley said that the district was leaning toward lifting the mask mandate because of the town’s high vaccination rate. However, he also emphasized the need to consult with local public health officials before making a decision.
“Because this is a student-staff safety matter, we now have to take counsel from the professionals,” said Addley. He said the board will vote on a mask policy in two weeks.
At a Feb. 9 Board of Education meeting in Region 13 – which includes the towns of Durham and Middlefield – Superintendent Doug Schuch recommended that the district make masks optional after Feb. 28.
“We’re starting to hear more and more … that the harm on the social emotional side … is starting to outweigh the perceived good that’s happening,” Schuch said at the meeting. “I think public sentiment has changed on this issue, and I think were it not for Omicron, we would have been there a long time ago.”
North Stonington’s Board of Education voted on Wednesday to make masks optional after the executive orders expire.
“Last night was one of those things where I said, it’s time to move on. It’s not just the learning loss from the fact that we were virtual [last year], but I really am concerned about social-emotional,” said Superintendent Peter Nero.
Other district superintendents say they wanted to hear more from their communities before making a decision. Superintendent Sean McKenna said that Griswold planned to offer a public forum on masking on Feb. 16, and Superintendent Portia Bonner in Bozrah said the district had sent out a survey to families to get their feedback on the issue.
“It’s interesting because we’re in a rural area, and there are low rates of vaccination,” Bonner said. “I think for our school community, what’s really key is the ‘what if’ factor if our numbers begin to increase. Will you allow us to go back to some of those mitigation strategies after they’ve been removed?”
A survey from the Connecticut Education Association, one of the largest teacher’s unions in Connecticut, found that 55 percent of their members supported continuing the mask mandate. Both Kate Dias, president of the Association, and Jan Hoechel, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Connecticut, argued that the legislature should “follow the science” when making its recommendation.
“We are asking for a couple of real things,” Dias said in a statement. “First, a science-based decision. One that relies on the Department of Public Health and CDC to establish standards based on when vaccination rates are high enough, positivity is low enough, and hospital rates are stable enough to deem masks optional. Second, a little time so that the weather is warm enough for us to open windows in our classrooms.”
Hoechel also testified before the state legislature on Monday that the state needed to have “an appropriate safety matrix and precautions for all staff that want precautions.”
The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education is urging board members across the state to consult with state and local public health officials before making any decisions.
“We caution districts to adhere to the science and use appropriate health metrics in their communities when they are making decisions on masking. Speaking with their health experts should be part of gathering input for making the decision,” said Bob Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
When asked, many districts officials said their primary goal would be to continue in-person learning, whether that means wearing masks or not.
According to Dr. Rick Martinello, medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Health, to continue in-person learning all districts must consider five things: the measure of COVID circulating in the community, the proportion of staff and students who are up to date on their COVID and influenza vaccinations, the availability for substitute teachers and staff, the ability to manage contact tracing and quarantine and the likelihood for sustaining student attendance.
“While there is certainly more room for research to better understand the benefits and limitations of masking, the evidence shows that masks are safe and effective,” he said.
According to the Department of Education, official guidance will be released in conjunction with the Department of Public Health once the legislature makes a final decision on Monday.