The Thursday, Feb. 17 meeting of the Board of Education, ostensibly billed as a budget meeting, was dominated by discussion and action on impending changes to the Wilton School District’s mask policy.
In an email on Feb. 9, Superintendent Kevin Smith detailed to the Wilton school community his recommendation that the district switch to a “mask optional” policy for K-12 students, assuming state mandates are lifted on Feb. 28. Preschool students, who are not yet eligible for vaccinations, would move to a “mask recommended” policy, and riders on school buses, which fall under federal regulations, will continue to be required to wear masks.
On Thursday evening, the Board did in fact vote to approve Smith’s plan, during a portion of the agenda listed as a “COVID Update” rather than an action item. The motion passed unanimously.
Several signs indicated that BOE officials anticipated possible interruptions during the meeting, similar to the events at the prior regular BOE meeting on Feb. 3. That meeting had a charged atmosphere from the start: several members of the public violated state regulations by refusing to wear masks in school buildings when students are present; some later interrupted board member discussions, prompting Board Chair Deborah Low to call a recess. She later emailed a letter to the school community titled, “Chairman’s Viewpoint about Civility,” which stated that the district’s civility policy “was significantly violated by some people in attendance.” Notably, Low was the only BOE member who signed the letter.
Officials originally scheduled the Feb. 17 meeting to be held remotely, until they received some complaints and requests for an in-person meeting. As a result, the BOE sent an email one day before announcing that the meeting would be changed to a hybrid format, with the in-person portion moved to the larger alternate location of the Zellner Gallery.
Anticipating that some attendees would again be unwilling to follow current state universal school mask laws, the letter stated that Wilton High School students who normally film school board meetings for WETV would not be present in the room but work remotely from the studio instead. The letter stated that attendees were “expect[ed] … to comply with the Wilton Public Schools civility policy and its regulations.” It also warned that if there were interruptions, a recess would be called and the meeting moved to fully remote.
This time, the letter was signed by all six members of the BOE.
Gaveling the meeting to order, Chair Deborah Low reiterated the school board’s civility policy:
“It is the intent of the Wilton Public Schools to promote mutual respect, civility, orderly conduct and positive communication among district employees, parents/guardians, and other members of the public,” she said. “Disruptive, hostile, or aggressive communication or actions will not be tolerated.”
She reiterated the guidelines for public comment, which occur at the beginning and end of each school board meeting. Comments are limited to two minutes per speaker and 15 minutes per topic, and the Board does not reply to public comments but rather follows up individually as necessary.
Comments from the Public
Comments from the public were generally measured and respectful. The Board did not call a recess or warn that one might be needed.
The first speaker, Joshua Kesselman, spoke in favor of continuing the mask mandate.
“I personally think we should continue the mask mandate until we are solidly out of the red zone, maybe as low as less than five cases per 100,000 on a rolling two-week average. I do not think it’s wise to drop the mask mandate until at least a week or two after the break when we are likely to pick up extra virus in the community.”
“I’d like to point out that masks work best when they are protecting others from you,” he added, “The point of a mask is to protect others from you should you not know that you have the virus, so that you do not spread it to people who are immune-compromised, unable to get vaccinated, or who cannot protect themselves.”
The overwhelming majority of speakers, however, spoke against a mask mandate or in favor of “mask choice,” a policy that would allow families to elect whether to have their children wear masks while at school.
The youngest speaker of the evening was a 7-year-old named Alex, who read a statement to the Board in person, saying, “I don’t want to wear my mask on anymore. I want to see my friends’ faces. Thank you.”
Requesting permission to speak unmasked, Renee Rafferty, introduced herself as a nurse, Wilton resident, and parent of three students in Wilton schools. She prefaced her remarks by saying she has worked throughout the pandemic as a nurse and that her family is both vaccinated and boosted.
“I choose to tell you about myself to only to ensure you don’t put me in a box and prejudge me as fringe, uneducated, or anti-science. Science and health care define my career. I support mask choice in schools because COVID is not the biggest health threat facing our children, but mental health and emotional wellbeing is.”
“We are begging you to save our children,” she said. “Masks tell our children they are wrong, they are infectious, they are dangerous, they are less than, that there are invisible threats all around them, that they need to be on high alert at all times — that they cannot be children. When is enough, enough?”
Gretchen Mancuso spoke as a teacher in a nearby district, “It is time for teachers and students to really see each other. It strikes me every time I take them out for a mask break how rarely I see their faces,” she said. “I am not discounting or glossing over the concerns of those with immune-compromised family members. Mask choice does not take away their right to a mask; it simply removes the requirement for all students to wear a mask.”
Adam Haims said, “There isn’t a single place my kids go into in Wilton where they have to wear a mask, except school, where they spend 90% of their day.”
He explained that his son was born with a medical condition that required several years of therapy and medical treatments, but ultimately succeeded. “Then you put these mask mandates in place, and he was no longer interested in eating with his mouth anymore. Back to speech therapists, back to special doctors to pull his teeth out because his teeth won’t fall out anymore. And I had to put another feeding tube in his stomach because I have to put this mask on his face all day long because you guys make him wear it. I can’t take it any longer. It’s got to stop. Mask choice on the 28th. I’m done with this — and everyone here agrees with me.”
Several members of the audience applauded loudly following Haims’ comments.
Marielle Wohlberg took the podium noting that she encouraged parents at last week’s meeting to stay respectful but called the messaging that came out afterwards as “very discouraging.”
“I don’t believe we had a room of bullying parents or people being disruptive, as came out in the reporting and in emails,” she said. “And now we have a police presence outside. I asked him if there was a problem and he said he was asked to be here tonight — as if something at the last meeting warranted that.”
During the prior meeting on Feb. 3, comments from one speaker, Heidi Cocca, who repeated the statement “we see you,” referring to the Board members at various locations around town, prompted Low to reinforce the civility guidelines and add, “the Board does not take kindly to any kind of threats, especially veiled ones.”
Wohlberg went on to ask the Board whether, in the case that the state legislature eventually reinstitutes a mask mandate, Wilton is prepared to “continue to fight for us.”
The next speaker, Deborah List, took the podium but turned away from the Board members to face the seating area filled with other members of the public.
“Many of you have spoken about the fact that COVID isn’t a problem for most children and many of you have spoken about your children’s emotional issues,” she said, the intensity in her voice rising. “As a parent of a child with cancer in Wilton High School, I want you to understand that the words that you’re using and the tone that you’re using is incredibly selfish. None of the fears you’re talking about are the same as the fears in my house with my family.”
At that point, Low intervened, telling List to “tone it down.”
List agreed and went on, referencing one student who spoke up during the Feb. 3 meeting. “The student who got up and talked about the kindest friend he has, who suffers from a life-threatening illness — that’s my child. And so, I would ask that we think about speaking to our families and children about how to protect everyone — not just ourselves, but everyone around us. That is the Portrait of a Graduate.”
As List sat down, Haims shouted at her from his seat, “Your child can wear a mask and ours won’t!”
Low interjected, “Hey-hey, whoa,-whoa, I understand the emotion,” as other audience members gestured at Haims to stop.
She noted that after the next speaker, the 15-minute comment period on a single topic would elapse, so the Board needed to either extend or close the public comment period. The Board then voted unanimously to extend the public comment period for an additional 15 minutes.
The first remote participant of the evening was Ciara Garcia, a senior at Wilton High School, who explained that her grandfather died of COVID-19 in March 2020 after catching the virus from a nurse in a hospital that didn’t have a mask mandate.
“Wearing a mask is not a choice. If one person doesn’t wear a mask and they have COVID, they spread it to everyone near them. The point of wearing a mask is that everyone wears them. Every time a mask mandate is lifted, the numbers go up; every time a mask mandate is put back in place, they go down.”
“I would like to end this by saying the events on Feb. 3 are the reason why I am here. They brought up feelings in me that I haven’t felt since my grandfather passed away from COVID. Now is not the time to make masks optional.”
Speaking in person, Bryan Dinkelacker replied, “I’d like to say to Ciara, I’m very sorry for the loss of your grandfather. It’s horrible, this virus has taken a lot of lives, it’s been bad. But that was a different virus than we have now — that’s a fact, that’s science. Omicron has 30 mutations. It’s much more transmissible and it’s much more mild. It’s less of a problem. That’s how viruses evolve. That’s science, you can look it up.”
Motioning to List and her son, he continued, “I’m very sorry for your situation, I am. But the masses should not have to carry the weight of the individuals who can make their own choices to protect themselves.”
As the public comment period continued, David Schwartz spoke up, saying, “However you call it — parent choice, mask optional, it’s no different from ‘red light optional.’ It doesn’t work. You don’t stop at a red light, you could kill someone else. They’re the same thing. Either you do it or you don’t do it but having it optional doesn’t work.”
Recommendations from the Superintendent
Smith opened his remarks by stating that his recommendations had not changed since being released Feb. 9:
- Adopt a “mask optional” policy for K-12 students and staff in schools
- Adopt a “mask recommended” policy for preschool
- Per federal requirements, continue to require masks on school buses
Smith reiterated his reasoning behind these recommendations and shared updated data:
- Although preschool students are not eligible to be vaccinated, the “vaccination rates for eligible students and staff are high.”
- 97% of WPS staff are fully vaccinated
- New statistics (released weekly each Thursday) as of Feb. 17
- 93.7% of 12-17 year-olds in Wilton have had two doses of the vaccine
- 43% of 12-17 year-olds in Wilton have received vaccine boosters
- 48.24% of 5-11 year-olds in Wilton have had two doses of the vaccine
- Average daily case rates continue to decline. Smith quoted the following data:
- In Fairfield County, the average daily case rate has fallen to 18.1/100,000
- Wilton has also seen a marked decline: 16.7/100,000 average daily cases for the weeks between Jan. 30–Feb. 12
- Specific to the schools, Smith said there has also been a “sharp decline” in the numbers of new cases, averaging just 1-2 cases per day
He noted that the schools have a stock of masks and at-home COVID tests available to families who request them, and that weekly surveillance testing would continue. The schools would also continue to promote social distancing, self-monitoring for symptoms, and isolation for students who test positive.
“In my mind,” he said. “Step one is to transition to mask optional. Should case rates remain stable or decline, then we can look at stepping back other mitigation strategies. If we start to see a spike, we need to reconsider the plan and masking in some form.
He added that the schools hoped to receive further guidance from the CT Department of Public Health shortly on issues such as contact tracing and the five-day return after quarantine policy, both of which had hinged on continued masking.
The Board Members briefly discussed Smith’s recommendations and asked questions.
- Board Member Pam Ely asked whether the staff was comfortable with this plan. Smith replied that he couldn’t speak for the majority of them.
- Board Member Nicola Davies posed a hypothetical question of what would happen under the post-Feb. 28 policy if an unmasked, unvaccinated first-grader tested positive. Smith said that such a student would need to isolate.
- Later in the evening, Board Member Jennifer Lalor asked whether restrictions on children riding each other’s buses could also be lifted soon. Smith said he was open to walking that back depending on case rates over the next couple of weeks.
- Board Member Mandi Schmauch, via zoom, pointed out that other neighboring towns such as Westport, Ridgefield, Greenwich, New Canaan, and Weston had also lifted their mask mandates recently.
- Vice Chair Ruth DeLuca requested more information about how Wilton schools will navigate having some children wearing masks and others not, including how they would explain the situation to children in an age-appropriate way. Smith confirmed that “teachers should not be in the business of policing masks” but that if a teacher knows a student is supposed to be masked, he or she may choose to remind the student.
Before moving to a vote, Low framed the decision around the Board of Education goals set at the beginning of the school year.
“One of our goals was to ‘ensure a healthy and safe school environment’ with regular review of COVID-related health data, research, and guidance recommended. In your recommendation, I hear that this is based on medical and scientific advice. This is about vaccination rates, case rates, and data for Wilton town, Fairfield County, and our schools,” Low said.
She also referenced comments from Annie Chochos made earlier in the evening. “We had a question tonight about a virologist, I’m going to substitute ‘epidemiologist’ for that. We consulted one informally earlier. My recommendation would be to make that a more permanent relationship.”
Lalor suggested adding a social and emotional health expert to the group being consulted as well.
Low then made a motion to accept Smith’s recommendation, which passed unanimously. The mask mandate in Wilton Schools will be lifted beginning Feb. 28, 2022.
Acknowledging the week-long school break ahead, Smith noted that families would be “asked to test prior to returning to school” and isolate if positive.
Final Public Comments
During the final moments of the meeting, the Board heard a few remaining public comments, beginning with Florentina Nica.
“Fun fact, during World War I and World War II, schools were still open and without gas masks — so we can do this,” she said, later urging the Board to reject a reinstitution of contact tracing protocols and eliminate all on-site testing in schools.
[Editor’s note: Following publication, Nica contacted GMW to clarify that she misspoke at the meeting and intended to say “fast fact” and not “fun fact”.]
Jared Martin, a candidate for Board of Education in 2021, thanked the Board for conducting the meeting in person but challenged Smith’s assertion that masks would be required on buses as a federal regulation.
“I do not believe that busing is a federal mandate,” he said, citing states such as Texas and Florida, which do not enforce masking on school buses. Martin urged the Board to look further into the issue. (The CDC’s website specifically states that the federal order includes school buses.)
Martin also urged the community to think about school budgeting as a per-pupil expenditure, rather than an overall budget number. Given that enrollment has declined within the district, he said, overall spending might be down but “per-pupil expenditures are going up.”
Board member Jen Lalor read a written public comment submitted by Linda de Matteo in advance of the meeting.
De Matteo wrote in calling on the Board to reconsider the school’s vaccination policy for visitors, saying, “I would like to be able to volunteer in my children’s classrooms without having to show any paper beyond my driver’s license. I am sick of being segregated and I will not subject myself to being tested for something I do not have. If I feel sick, I will simply stay home.”
She also referenced the prior meeting, writing, “The emails and GOOD Morning Wilton article reiterating that there was uncivil behavior from parents at the last meeting is veering down the road of calling parents ‘domestic terrorists,’ which we saw from radical boards across America. This is small-town Wilton. We do not raise our voices; we cry for our children. We only wish you would do the same.”
Before concluding the meeting, Low noted that the next regular meeting of the Board of Education would be Mar. 3 and that Feb. 28 would likely be announced as a tri-board meeting on capital operating and possible bonding issues. She also mentioned that the Board of Finance has set Mar. 23 as the public hearing date for the Board of Education budget.
GMW will report on the budget progress of Thursday’s meeting in a follow-up story.