On Monday, the majority of Connecticut public, private and parochial schools will make mask wearing optional for students and staff, after the passage of Special Act No 22-1.
The end of universal masking in schools comes as data released Thursday showed at least 800 fewer COVID cases among students and staff in Connecticut in the past week and a positivity rate of 3.99 percent, down from a peak of 24 percent.
According to guidance released by the state Department of Public Health on February 18:
“Given the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines, at-home COVID-19 testing, medications to treat COVID-19, falling case counts, and our collective experience mitigating the spread of COVID-19 using layered mitigation strategies in our schools over the last two years, effective February 28, 2022 our communities can begin to transition the management of COVID-19 in schools from a pandemic emergency response model toward a model that aligns with a more standard public health approach to the management and control of respiratory viral diseases.”
But although local districts have jurisdiction within school buildings, federal regulations remain unchanged on school buses, where masks continue to be mandated.
And 10 urban districts – 9 identified as underperforming by the state – have decided to maintain mask mandates and COVID protocols until at least March 31. Those include Stamford, Hartford, Danbury, Bridgeport, New Haven, Hamden, Waterbury, Norwich, East Granby and East Windsor.
Several, including New Haven, continue to implement city-wide mask mandates for all indoor locations.
“We know that people will be unhappy with our decision. Some wanted masks to be required until the school year ended, while others have asked for immediate removal. Our decision is not about making people happy; it is about keeping people safe,” wrote the directors and superintendent of the Capitol Region Education Council in a letter to parents of students who attend CREC magnet schools throughout Hartford County where masks will be in place until March 31.
The Department of Education declined to comment on whether continued universal masking in higher need districts would lead to increased educational disparities compared with suburban and rural districts allowing students and staff to unmask.
At least six other towns will end the mask mandate between March 4 and March 15 to allow more time to prepare for the transition.
Tracey Youngberg, superintendent of Windham Public Schools, described the delay, that will be revisited on March 9, as “prudent.”
Windham, and other districts that spoke to CT Examiner, explained that the extra few days would allow for additional vaccine clinics for students, organizing distribution days for N95 masks, at-home test kits and extra time to make sure that COVID cases are on the decline.
“It felt like a wise decision to kind of wait and see what happened in other schools that were lifting their mask mandates,” said Steven Tatum, a 9th grade English teacher at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy.
Tatum said he believed most teachers had mixed feelings about the masks. While they were an important safety measures, they also prevented teachers from seeing facial expressions and that it was sometimes difficult to make sure the students were wearing their masks correctly, he said.
Even after agreeing to a mask-optional policy, several superintendents, including Jeffrey Newton of East Lyme, continue to recommend masks.
“I strongly recommend continued mask wearing in our school buildings but will not require it,” Newton wrote in his announcement about the change in policy.
In addition to the change in mask policy, many districts, including New Hartford, are taking the opportunity to alter other COVID-19 safety procedures including contact tracing and quarantining for students that are exposed to COVID-19 either at home or at school.
Other school districts, including East Haddam, distributed at-home test kits this past week, based on state guidance, and are requiring all students who choose not to mask starting on Monday to obtain a negative at-home test first.
While some school districts held a vote at a board of education meeting and others just made an administrative decision about whether to continue masking after February 28, every district expressed concerns about how to handle parent complaints.
“We know that there are different opinions on this decision. As a whole community we must accept and support every family’s choice to continue to wear a mask or not,” wrote Principal Susan Imschweiler in a letter to the Pomfret Public School Community. “We ask that families who wish for their children to continue wearing a mask at school clearly communicate their expectations to their children. We have about 250 families each with their own opinion, so it is not practical for our school staff to be responsible for monitoring mask wearing by choice in the school setting.”
In guidance released jointly by the state Department of Education and the Department of Public Health, school districts were urged to “support students and staff who choose to continue wearing a mask even when school policies do not require their use.”
Special Act No 22-1, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani maintains the authority to issue broad mask requirements in schools, childcare centers, healthcare facilities and shelters depending on COVID conditions until June 30. But the Department of Public Health was not able to offer specific metrics for when it might put a mandate back into place.Instead, the department is simply advising districts to use “enhanced mitigation strategies for surge response and outbreak control.” In other words, if there is an “outbreak” of COVID-19, districts should implement “a local universal masking policy for students and staff on a temporary basis. Implementation of masking can be done at the classroom, grade or school level depending on the extent of transmission and structure of the school.”