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Fate of school mask mandate dominates legislative public hearing

Students enter a Connecticut school on the first day of the 2021-22 academic year.
Tony Spinelli
Connecticut Public
Students enter a Connecticut school on the first day of the 2021-22 academic year.

Just days before a scheduled House vote on whether Gov. Ned Lamont’s COVID executive powers should continue, over 350 speakers wanted a say in who gets to decide school mask enforcement. Many who spoke during a remote special legislative public hearing on Tuesday were parents, who said the choice to mask should be given back to them, citing the harmful impacts of masks on social and emotional learning.

“Masks do not work efficiently with young 3-to-5-year-olds,” said Kathy Gilbert, a Fairfield preschool educator and mother.

“Some young children may be able to wear them more correctly than others, but as a whole we cannot expect a young child to appropriately wear a mask,” she said.

Resident Tina Manus supports a mask mandate. She criticized elected leaders for considering an end to the statewide school mask mandate because there are still children who fear spreading the virus to friends and family, especially those who live in multigenerational homes.

“You’re not elected by money, you’re elected by people,” said Manus. “Protect the people from other people, or just give it up already. If masks are eliminated in schools, you’re making students assassins in their own communities and families. Have the political will to do the right thing and err on the side of caution.”

Lamont, whose emergency powers expire Feb. 15, recommended Monday that the statewide school mask mandate end on Feb. 28. He wants to give local school districts the power to decide on all future mask rules.

But the legislature has to greenlight the executive order for the school mask mandate to continue until Feb. 28.

State officials said that if the legislature votes to lift the mandate, the state departments of Public Health and Education will give guidance to local schools. Health officials also said the state’s continuing drop in COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates helped guide this process.

When asked about what specific metrics should be considered when deciding whether to lift or keep the mandate, Dr. Manisha Juthani, the state’s public health commissioner, said it’s difficult to provide concrete numbers because the pandemic continues to be fluid.

“What we try to do is learn as much as we can as we’re going, give the advice and guidance that we can, then adapt as time goes on,” she said. “What we give as guidance will change with time. Some of it’s because conditions on ground will change, prevalence with the disease will change. There are different methods of guidance at different times.”

She emphasized that hospitalization numbers and vaccination rates are important to continue monitoring.

“What we’re offering is to allow local officials to make that choice. Because every community is going to be a little different,” said Juthani.

Republican State Sen. Tony Hwang says he’s glad to hear more details, but it has been a confusing process.

“And it’s even compounded by the fact that we don’t have specific language to articulate, literally two days before the House is going to vote on an important piece of legislation,” he said.

Lawmakers are expected to vote Thursday on whether to make Lamont’s remaining pandemic-era executive orders into law, including the school mask mandate.

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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