A Divided Decision in Southeast Connecticut — Norwich and New London Split, Towns Drop Mask Mandates for Schools


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New London and Norwich Boards of Education were divided in their decisions on Thursday about whether or not to make masking optional in the districts after Gov. Ned Lamont’s mask mandate expires on February 28. 

New London’s board voted to make masking optional starting on Monday, although the district still strongly recommends that students continue to wear masks. Norwich voted to extend the mask mandate through March 18, after which masking will become optional.  

Groton, East Lyme, Lyme-Old Lyme and North Stonington have all announced that they will not be requiring masks after the state-level mandate expires. 


In a board meeting with over 100 people in attendance, Norwich’s board of education voted 5-3 to extend the mask mandate through March 18. Board member Mark Kulos, who suggested the motion, said that it was to align with the date when the federal mask mandate for public transportation, including school buses, was set to expire.  

Three teachers spoke in favor of extending the mask mandate. Beth Belliveau, a teacher at Global Studies Magnet Middle School, said she was concerned about peer pressure for students whose parents wanted them to continue wearing masks. 

“I wonder how many board members have been to our schools because I can tell you in my school … they wear their masks. And when a student coughs, they want their masks on,” said Lisa Cormier, a science teacher at Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School. 

Elliot Omo-Edo, an infectious disease specialist with a five-year-old in the district, also said he believed it was not time to stop requiring masks. 

“Yes, numbers are going down, but i don’t think we’re out of the woods yet,” said Omo-Edo. 

Parents who spoke against the mask mandate raised concerns about their students’ abilities to learn in the masks. Parent Matthew Kalinowski said he was concerned about the effect that the masks were having on his kindergartener, who has a speech delay. Parents Christina Carter and Fedra Brown said that the masks made it difficult for their children to learn to read.

“D and B sound very similar when you can’t see the mouth that’s saying them,” said Carter. 

Norwich parents who submitted comments to the Board also expressed concerns about social and emotional health. 

“The kids are suffering not being able to show and decipher expressions from each other and their teachers. There’s only so much you can tell by the eyes,” wrote Holly Sierpinski, parent of a third grader and a first grader at Lane Moriarty 

Board members’ opinions were also varied.

“I think at this point, our children are more important, we have to consider them because they are still in a developmental age and that has definitely hindered their development,” said board member Christine DiStasio.

“I am in favor of us taking the time to eliminate masks after a period when we can get our COVID levels to a normal level,” said board member Greg Perry, who added that he was concerned about teachers getting sick. 

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said that about 98 percent of teachers were fully vaccinated against COVID, while about 20 percent of students were reported as fully vaccinated. 

She said that the number of COVID cases in the district had decreased from a peak of 172 cases in early January to four cases this week. 

New London

The New London Board of Education voted 4-3 to approve superintendent Christina Richie’s recommendation that the district make mask wearing optional, although the district would strongly encourage that students continue to wear masks.

Richie said that the district would monitor the COVID-19 situation in the schools daily, and that there would be other mitigation strategies in place, such as extra cleaning, continuing to encourage outdoor learning and providing PPE to anyone who needed it. She presented the shift as moving from a health emergency to a health mandate. 

“Our data looks good right now. Again, it’s still recommended to continue to protect yourself, but there are many ways to protect yourself,” said Richie.

Richie said that rather than trying to discipline or penalize children around mask-wearing, she wanted to focus on educating the community. 

“You don’t want fear, but you want understanding,” she said. 

Board of Education member Elaine Maynard-Adams said that she was not in favor of dropping the masks in schools, but that she felt the governor’s decision to drop the mandate tied the district’s hands. 

“I still believe that the best course of action is to continue wearing the masks, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that the governor and the state have taken away all our tools,” said Maynard-Adams. “It’s tough to mandate what you can’t enforce.” 

Board members Bianca Alexis, Danni Cruz and Frank Silva said they felt they had not received enough community feedback on the issue, and that they wanted to keep the masks in place until they had a greater sense of what the community wanted. 

Board member Brian Doughty said that he had received many text messages and emails from parents. He also said that the teacher’s union had done a survey in which 57 percent of respondents said they no longer wanted to wear the masks. 

Three parents offered public comment at the meeting. Two were in favor of removing the masks. Parent Amy Tortarella said she felt that after three years of parents reading and researching everything they could about COVID, the parents were capable of making the decision. Rebecca Rogers, who has three sons in the district, said that the children don’t wear the masks properly and that the masks become dirty during the school day.

“Needless to say, this is the most unhygienic experience of my life,” said Rogers. 

The third parent, Jen Muggio, said that masks were an effective strategy against COVID and that they kept children learning in-person. She said that where her children were concerned, the idea of removing masks made them feel stressed.

“Even the mention of masks being optional raises anxiety levels,” she said. 

Student representative Roodley Merilo said he did not want to drop the mask mandate. He said the only time it became an issue for him was when he was playing sports. 

“I believe we should keep the masks on. I believe the majority of the student body agrees with me on that… we are in a pandemic and we should have the mask on,” said Merilo. 

According to data that Richie provided, about 30 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 and 50 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 who live in New London are fully vaccinated. However, Richie said that they do not know the vaccination rates for the magnet schools, which accept students from other towns. She said that 93 percent of teachers in the district were fully vaccinated. 

Richie said that in New London, as in Norwich, the number of cases spiked after the December break to close to 200 cases. However, the numbers have been consistently declining ever since. The district reported three cases between February 12 and February 23.

UPDATE: After the CDC released new guidance on Friday saying that schools in areas with low or medium rates of positivity for COVlD no longer need to implement universal masking, the Norwich Board of Education held an emergency meeting on Saturday. At the meeting, the board voted unanimously to overturn their previous decision to extend the mask mandate to March 18, according to a press release from the Board Chairman Robert Aldi. Masks will be optional in the Norwich public schools beginning on Monday.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.