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Students, Even The Hesitant, Go Back To Schools With Masks

Tony Spinelli
Connecticut Public
Students at Watertown High arrive for their first day back at school and greet officer Jeff Desena before walking in.

Stan Guillory was happy to see his son start the school year in the actual school building. He pulled up to the drop-off circle at Watertown High School last week, and he sent his son out of the air-conditioned car and into the hot day, wearing a mask.

Speaking out his car window, Guillory said his children “need to go to school, they need to be around their peers and be with other kids. They had enough of home.”

Students in all grades of all Connecticut schools are required to wear masks as they go back to class. But a small group of parents and kids across the state is pushing back on the mandate.

Guillory said that if a mask is what his son needed to stay in school, he’s all right with it, putting him in the majority on this topic. Nationwide, 60% of K-12 parents believe schools should require masks, according to a Gallup poll.

Unmask Our Kids CT is a small but growing group of parents who would like mask choice in schools. Its members and sympathizers have been holding rallies and speaking up at board of education meetings in the hopes of overturning the mask mandate.

Their complaints have sometimes been disruptive, as evidenced at a back-to-school roundtable last month where Gov. Ned Lamont had to leave early and encountered angry parents as he made his way to his car.

Unmask Our Kids CT declined multiple attempts to schedule an interview. Videos on the Facebook group provide a window into leader Jonathan Johnson’s perspective.

Johnson went live during a protest at the state Capitol recently, saying, “Parents and residents of Connecticut are speaking out. They’ve had enough of the mask mandate.” About 300 people attended, according to Capitol Police.

Johnson is also taking donations so that his organization can distribute free lawn signs and pay for billboards on state highways. Unmask Our Kids CT said through a Facebook message that a petition to overturn the mandate has over 19,000 signatures.

In another video, Johnson suggests the state is mandating vaccines for students. But it isn’t.

“They’re funneling us like a herd to the slaughter,” Johnson said, referring to the state and governor. “They’re making sure that there’s no other virtual learning options around the whole state so you all gotta go into the system, get the mask on, get your shot going ... so you can’t participate in schooling.”

Tony Spinelli / Connecticut Public
Students at Watertown High School arrive for their first day back on Aug. 27, 2021.

Vaccines are not mandated for students, only masks. But schools aren’t required to offer virtual learning options this year. Some high schools are using it anyway. Parents of the medically vulnerable are concerned about the lack of options, as well as those who believe in mask choice.

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said there is some truth in what he says.

“Frankly, their options are limited because this applies to private and public schools in Connecticut,” she said. Home schooling or moving to another state are their only options, Rabinowitz added, hoping that neither would be the case.

Rabinowitz said she is “open to a difference of opinion, but part of me wonders whether this is a child issue or an adult issue.”

Dr. Luke Davis, a pulmonologist and professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, said he often thinks “there are lots of things we don’t like to do to be healthy, but we know that those [things] protect us.”

Davis says that, when the choice is between wearing masks and going to school or not doing either, the best decision is the mask.

“What people are seeing is scientists trying to get to the truth, and it’s not always a straight process,” Davis said. He appreciates the frustration of parents, when it seemed over the summer that the end of the pandemic was near. But he reiterated the need to trust the science, even as it evolves.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a study showing that transmission risk of the delta variant remains high among unmasked and unvaccinated people in schools.

Davis would prefer to see children in the classroom rather than at home because he’s concerned about the rise of anxiety and depression in adolescents during months of school from home. The best way to protect the physical and mental health of children this school year, he said, is to send them off in a mask.

At Watertown High School, students got off buses and out of cars wearing masks, whether they liked it or not.

Sophomore Maggie Dassatti said, “I don’t think anybody’s happy with it. Personally, I’m not happy to wear a mask.” Dassatti feels disconnected from her peers and says the mask makes it harder to communicate. She was wearing a blue surgical mask.

Brandon Maietto, a junior, said the ask to wear a mask is only a big deal in the positive sense. “I don’t believe there’s anything changing, other than the fact that you’re just probably saving another person’s life,” he said.

Maietto’s mask may save a life or at the very least keep him and his classmates in the building and out of the frequent quarantines that disrupted last year.

The mask mandate runs through Sept. 30, when Lamont’s executive powers are set to end.

Tony Spinelli / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Students at Watertown High School arrive for their first day back on Aug. 27, 2021. For now, a mask mandate remains in place for all K-12 schools in Connecticut.

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She loves hearing what you thought of her stories or story ideas you have so please email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org.

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