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School mask mandate debate continues as Lamont reconsiders who gets to decide

Drawings of children wearing masks adorn a hallway at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.
John Moore/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Drawings of children wearing masks adorn a hallway at Stark Elementary School in Stamford, Connecticut, on Sept. 16, 2020.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said he is reviewing COVID-19 data and considering whether it’s time for local school boards to decide whether mask mandates are necessary.

The possibility of lifting school mask mandates is a major concern for educators, who have asked state officials to “follow the science” when it comes to student and staff safety. But others argue that parents and local school districts should be given that choice.

A day after Lamont said that dropping the statewide mask mandate might be possible, the debate over whether children still need to wear masks in school dominated the public participation session of a state Board of Education meeting on Wednesday.

Frustrated that the decisions are being made from the top down, Susan Zabohonski, founder of Parent’s Choice Connecticut, said there’s no reason that public health departments and school boards can’t make these decisions.

“This is just hurting the education system in general,” she said. “I’ve asked here multiple times for local control on these issues. One gentleman spoke and said, ‘You know that could cause problems.’ It’s not, this is how our government is supposed to run. It’s supposed to be run by local control.”

With Connecticut’s coronavirus positivity rate generally declining after a January spike, Lamont said the state may evaluate masks in schools in the next couple of days. On Wednesday, the state Department of Public Health reported that the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped by 60 to 935. The daily test positivity rate stood at 7.43%.

Lamont said on Wednesday that giving municipalities full power to enforce masks in classrooms is a possibility.

“We’re taking a good hard look at the numbers and are going to make up our minds in less than a week and how much flexibility to give to our towns and municipalities, and I think that’s coming,” Lamont said.

The school mask mandate has been in effect through Lamont’s executive orders. But those are set to expire in mid-February, as his COVID emergency powers lapse. Lamont said he will work closely with the state legislature to make an official decision on masks.

Still, educators are calling for state officials to be cautious about making this decision.

Teachers continue to work in stressful conditions, in poorly ventilated spaces, while interacting with unvaccinated people, said Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association and a teacher at Manchester High School.

“I ask you to consider to maintain this mandate for just a little longer,” Dias said at a state Board of Education meeting,” I don’t want to see this in perpetuity. None of us do. We look forward to the days where our positivity rates are low and our vaccination rates are high with our students. That’s just not where we are today.”

A joint statement from multiple labor unions representing nearly 60,000 school employees across Connecticut urged that masks be worn by all, regardless of vaccination status, to protect against the latest COVID-19 surge.

The power to implement masking in schools may shift to the legislature, as state lawmakers are expected to allow Lamont’s emergency powers to expire on Feb. 15. The legislative session starts Feb. 9, and Lamont hinted that school mask mandates should be discussed.

Catherine is the Host of Connecticut Public’s morning talk show and podcast, Where We Live. Catherine and the WWL team focus on going beyond the headlines to bring in meaningful conversations that put Connecticut in context.

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