At a time of year when budget discussions would normally be the main topic at Wilton’s Board of Education (BOE) meetings, the subject of mask-wearing in Wilton schools dominated much of the discussion at the BOE’s meeting last Thursday, Feb. 3.
Numerous members of the public opposed to mask mandates appeared at the BOE meeting, expressing emotionally-charged appeals to the Board for “parental choice” or at least “local control” in lieu of state direction over COVID mitigation strategies.
Gov. Ned Lamont‘s executive orders mandating masks in schools are due to expire Tuesday, Feb. 15. While the governor has hinted he is weighing lifting the order before then, he may also leave it to legislators to decide whether to extend it. That leaves questions about the future of Wilton’s masking policy looming large.
Sentiment against mask mandates and mandatory mask wearing in school has been growing in Wilton and elsewhere. Most recently an Instagram group called Mask Choice Wilton, modeled after hundreds of similar local “Mask Choice” groups around the country, has gathered several hundred followers.
Mask Choice Wilton members have reached out to GOOD Morning Wilton referencing similar efforts in Darien and New Canaan. They shared a letter written by the Darien Board of Education and sent to Gov. Lamont as well as to the Commissioner of the CT Department of Public Health, Commissioner of the CT State Department of Education, and the state’s epidemiologist, asking for local autonomy and decision-making over mask requirements in schools. Other Wilton parents have been closely watching a similar effort underway in New Canaan, where residents recently spoke at a forum held by legislators on the topic.
[Editor’s note: the Darien BOE letter can be found at the end of this article.]
Disruption at Wilton’s BOE Meeting
[The Feb. 3 BOE meeting was recorded and can be seen on YouTube. A link and password to view the video recording can also be found on the Board of Ed website under Board Docs.]
With masking policy on the agenda, Thursday evening’s BOE meeting had a charged atmosphere, even before the meeting started. Several members of the public attending in person were not wearing masks — violating current state rules mandating universal mask wearing in school buildings when students are present.
After several attendees refused to comply with requests that they put on masks, Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith asked the four Wilton High School students operating the video cameras broadcasting the meeting live (by Zoom and YouTube) to leave the room.
As a result, the cameras were fixed in place and couldn’t pan to show different sections of the room. At various points, speakers could be heard but not seen on camera.
On occasion, although the people sitting in the audience seats were not seen on camera, audible comments could be heard from members of the public during the meeting. Several times, BOE Chair Deborah Low reminded members of the public about meeting rules governing civility and procedure that allow public comments only at designated times (the very beginning and very end of the meeting). Despite this, public interruption continued, and Low eventually called a brief recess — a measure rarely, if ever, taken at a BOE meeting — to put the meeting back on track.
The first of two periods allotted for public comment was dominated with statements from people supporting either complete removal of mask mandates (and other COVID mitigations), or in support of what they called “parental choice” or individual freedoms. Many also called for local control and autonomy from state oversight. Some speakers were passionate, some angry, some spoke calmly.
Resident Jared Martin was the first member of the public to speak at the meeting.
Martin, who had made an unsuccessful run for a Board of Ed seat last November, criticized the Board for “a failure of execution and foresight” for not yet having prepared what he called “an exit strategy” for current masking policy.
“All mandates of all sorts need to come down. They need to be optional. It is time. This is over,” Martin said. “I implore, let’s take back control of what it is for Wilton’s students, Wilton’s children.”
“We’ve had zero COVID [student] deaths. We’ve had suicides,” Martin added. “It’s time for us to get back to normal.”
As more members of the public took the floor, the intensity continued to build.
Florentina Nica said, “I’m here to ask you if you could please fight for our children’s rights. They have, we as a family have, a right to choose,” Nica said. “Where are the Board’s attorneys fighting and expressing our rights? How can you sleep at night?”
“You have taken away our freedom, our parental rights, our rights to choose,” Nica told the Board. “Let’s fight the mandates. Let’s figure out a way to fight any potential extension of this.”
Another parent, Heidi Cocca, repeatedly told Board members, “We see you.”
“We see you. We see you around town. We see you in the grocery store. We see you in restaurants.”
Apparently concerned at the direction Cocca’s comments might be heading or how they might be interpreted, Low interrupted to remind Cooca about civility rules for BOE meetings.
At that point, Cocca continued, “[We see you] all without masks,” and went on to suggest Board members had been seen publicly without masks on, a choice she said she applauded. She did not cite specific examples.
Cocca repeated, “We see you. Do you see us? Do you see those of us in this room, those of us who you’ll read their public comments? This is just the tip of the iceberg. We are growing in numbers and we are growing in frustration… The tides are turning and the people are starting to speak up. We’re coming together and we’re getting stronger. Do you see us?”
Her comments were met with applause from several members of the audience.
“The Board does not take kindly to any kind of threats, especially veiled ones,” Low responded.
Tensions continued after the public comment period ended. As the BOE moved through its agenda, including its own discussions on masking, several interruptions from the public could be heard.
The audience reacted particularly strongly as Board member Pam Ely raised a concern about how a change in policy would impact preschoolers in the district, since they are ineligible for vaccines.
“That would be my worry, to protect them, and the staff that teach them,” Ely said.
Board member Nicola Davies said she was feeling “uncomfortable” with the audience’s behavior.
After multiple requests for order, Low moved for a brief recess, admonishing the audience to refrain from further interruption.
“I hope everybody can just reflect on the fact that we really would like to get through our business tonight, but we’re not going do it with audience grumbling and comments that we can hear that interrupt our conversation,” Low said.
As the members of the BOE exited the room for the five-minute recess, some members of the public continued to direct comments at them.
After the Board members left the room, some of the parents could be heard speaking to one another on the audio feed from the cameras. There was discussion about needing to tone down the behavior, with unidentified voices saying, “I think we should be quiet … There’s another comment period at the end… It doesn’t help us if they cancel the meeting… I think we should be respectful.” Then the audio went silent.
Patience Running Thin
Most of the parents attending in person at the meeting expressed their frustrations with the continued mask mandates because they believed either masks were ineffective as a mitigation tool or, after two years of the pandemic, an end to the mask policy was overdue.
During the second public comment period at the end of the meeting, Wilton parent Bryan Dinkelacker attributed his earlier interruptions and out-of-turn comments to feeling strongly about the issue.
“First I’d like to apologize. When it comes to my kids, I get very passionate. We all do,” Dinkelacker began. “All we’re looking for is choice. We want the parents’ rightful ability to choose for their kids.”
“[COVID]’s gone endemic. We need to live with it,” Dinkelaker continued, comparing the coronavirus today to a mild cold or flu. In contrast, he said, “My kindergartner has never seen his teacher smile at him. How horrible is that? Horrible.”
Dinkelacker also referred to an older child who struggled with a mask, finding it difficult to breathe and communicate.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “We need to give our kids their faces back. We need to give parents their right to choose for their own kids back… I implore you [for] local choice, parental choice.”
Weighing Mental Health Concerns With Physical Risks
Multiple parents in attendance raised concerns about their children’s mental health as a result of the pandemic generally, and masking in particular.
Like other parents who spoke, Farah Minnich appealed to school officials that they consider the gravity of students’ mental health conditions as a factor in determining mask policy.
“While I’m sensitive to the kids who may be immune compromised and teachers who may be immune compromised, I’m also sensitive to the families who are dealing with kids that have anxiety and depression,” Minnich said. “It’s just as prevalent as any other vulnerable health condition. I would just please ask you to also consider the metrics with regard to the rise in mental health diagnoses. There’s a significant, over-50% increase in diagnoses of anxiety and depression. We’ve had suicide in our own town. So the metrics with regard to physical health are absolutely important.
Minnich felt that mental health metrics should be given at least as much weight as physical health.
“I fully respect what a difficult position [Board members] are in, I really do, but there are metrics with regard to mental health and I hope that you’re consulting psychologists, psychiatrists, as much as you are medical doctors, because [mental health] is just as much of an important issue here when taking into account how to proceed.”
“I really implore you to consider the mental health metrics and long-term implications of all of this because I live with it in my own house,” Minnich continued, referring to her child struggling with mental health. “It’s horrible. And I feel for any of the other families that have been living with the same thing.”
Several parents expressed a belief that COVID was not as big a threat to young children as the danger presented by masks.
“I don’t see how we can continue to sacrifice the wellbeing of the whole child approach in our community to those in our community, with a minuscule to zero risk of real disease. And I’m not just talking about testing positive. And [children] bear the maximum detriments from wearing the masks,” parent Jennifer Cannizzaro said, adding, “There’s no reason to put the responsibility and burden of other people’s health on the shoulders of our children.”
Justyna Nurcyzk said that children have done “their part to protect the society for way too long.”
“I don’t know why our kids are suffering the most if they have the lowest fatality rates. Kids are staying six to eight hours daily in masks. Have you reviewed the impact of masks on our kids?” she asked, later adding, “COVID protocols only adding to the anxiety and stress. Our children need to see their friends’ faces, to play, to sing, to play sports, have their faces uncovered, to eat indoors and to laugh and talk, not through the plexiglass. They should not be treated like a disease-carrying killers.”
Some Support for Masking
While opponents of the current mask policy outnumbered those in favor at the meeting, some supporters of mandated mask wearing did comment.
One such Wilton resident was Dr. Caroline Gulati, a critical care and pulmonary disease specialist who spoke over Zoom to offer the opinion that “now is the wrong time” to end the mask mandate for children in Wilton schools.
“Once the vaccination rates are higher, and the incidence of COVID is much lower for a steady period of time, then we can start having discussions about removing one of our only defenses that has been proven to work,” Gulati said.
She reiterated her professional belief that masks worked to protect against the spread of COVID.
“There are countless studies showing that counties that have worn and applied mask mandates have lower rates of COVID, lower spread to other children, and keep community rates lower in general. … Kids are in school, being in school is more important than … any drawback of having kids in masks. The most important thing is keeping our schools open and with peers and friends and with teachers. And we’ve been able to do that with the masks.”
The four student camera operators, who earlier had been asked to leave the room, returned during the second public comment period. Each made a statement in favor masks, and in response to some of what they’d heard earlier in the evening.
[Editor’s note: when they re-entered the Board room, one of the students turned a camera to focus on the public comment podium. This was the only time speakers were visible on camera during any public comment.]
The first, senior Joe Eustace, spoke about wearing a mask out of the need to protect other vulnerable students.
“I don’t believe a single person on the earth enjoys wearing mask. I certainly don’t,” Eustace began. “However, I’m incredibly lucky to not have any medical ailments that might make a potential viral infection serious for me, but one of the nicest, most caring friends of mine… has a preexisting condition that would make the COVID-19 infection life-threatening. While making these [policy] decisions, we must consider the health of everyone in our community, not just ourselves.”
Eustace added what seemed to be a rebuke to those who had disrupted the meeting earlier: “Remember that schools are about educating our youth. Children are watching and observing us right now. Let’s make sure we are representing strong moral values and not short term passions.”
Senior Luke Medalla spoke next, strongly objecting to the reference parents made earlier in the meeting about Wilton suicides — an insinuation he called “ignorant” and “disgusting”. [Editor’s note: Medalla took pains to not identify a teen who died by suicide in 2020, “for the privacy of the family.”]
“This student was one of the first people I became friends with and hearing of their tragic death was one of the worst moments of my life. Insinuating that this suicide was caused due to the pandemic is extremely ignorant. And using this student to push your own political agenda is simply disgusting. I hope that this loss in our community can be used as a sign to focus more on students’ mental health rather than on this pandemic,” Medalla said.
He added that he preferred mask-wearing over other mitigation alternatives, including remote learning.
“Learning remotely for me was significantly more difficult than learning in school currently with a mask,” Medalla said. “So while like many of you I’d love to be able to go to school without wearing a mask, I’d much rather be forced to wear a mask than be forced to go remote because of a potential rise in cases and putting the health of our wonderful community at risk.”
Senior Harrison Forland acknowledged that mask wearing might be less of a burden for high schoolers than for younger students.
“Do I think that masks have hindered my social interaction and my learning? Not really. I can still hang out with all my friends. I can laugh. I can make jokes. Nothing’s stopping us from having fun conversations. I can still read the emotions on their faces. I can still pay attention in class. I can still follow along in lectures or labs. And guess what I can do all of that while still following the most basic COVID protocols. Masks to be entirely honest are just not that big of a hindrance in my everyday life to me, and I image to most high schoolers,” Forland said.
Junior Logan Thompson echoed a strong desire to prevent the need for remote learning.
“Do you remember the past two years where we spent the majority of our time in either all remote or hybrid learning? I sure do, and it was miserable. Being stuck at home was emotionally straining for almost everyone in the school community. If we were to make masks optional, people would be much more susceptible to catching the virus, and we would go back to square one. I’d much rather keep the mask mandate in school than go back to e-learning,” Thompson said.
Bryan Dinkelacker, who could be seen expressing his disdain for the students’ comments while they spoke, returned to the microphone to say he believed the students had been “set up” by Board members or other individuals. Low denied the accusation.
Following the meeting, GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to the students to ask for comment about the accusation of collaborating with the Board on their comments.
Eustace told GMW it was “unequivocally, 100% not set up.” He then emailed a statement signed by all four students:
“The four of us were in the building to broadcast the Board of Education meeting. At the beginning. Dr. Smith asked the camera operators to leave the room because of the numerous unmasked members of the public. While broadcasting the meeting, we observed the initial upsetting public comments. As the disruptions continued and the Board went into recess, we all agreed to make our own comments. We were not prompted in any way to make these remarks. We simply wanted to provide our perspective.”
“How Do We Move Forward?”
In between public comment sections, the Board members discussed the mask topic. Superintendent Smith set the context for the Board to consider its next moves.
He began by noting Gov. Ned Lamont‘s executive order — which gives the district no discretion on the matter of masking in schools — is in place until Feb. 15.
“As long as the executive order is in force, we don’t have discretion — not Boards and not superintendents — to alter the current masking policy,” Smith said. “That executive order has the force of law.”
Although Lamont has asked the state legislature to extend the mandate, it’s not clear what action, if any, the legislature will take.
Smith told Board members one outcome could be “a temporary extension of the mask mandate” or possibly “a mechanism that enables local districts to make decisions about masks.”
If such a mechanism is enacted, or the executive order simply expires, Smith indicated he is open to input on how to handle the issue.
“We’ve received some communication earlier this week, we’ve heard some commentary tonight that presents some very different perspectives, and we need to take all that into account,” Smith said. “We also need to continue to take the feedback from our families, solicit feedback from our staff, and then put that together and develop a plan and a timeline for implementation.”
Smith added that any decisions would have to be consistent with the BOE’s stated priorities for a healthy and safe school environment balanced with a return to normal conditions as quickly as possible.
“The deliberation really does need to be weighing the benefits and the drawbacks of mask-wearing for the entire school community,” Smith said.
“The question is, how do we move forward?” Smith asked rhetorically. “I think we have good experience that has guided us well so far.”
Smith went on to suggest a process that would involve reliance on local health experts along with metrics such as vaccination rates, positivity rates, and absentee rates for students and staff. (Smith cited staff absences averaging 80 per day during the recent Omicron surge, a rate he called “unsustainable.”)
Smith added that the district might begin to consider newer data on the impact of an individual’s immunity following a positive case; emerging case studies from other districts that have gone mask-optional; and updated recommendations from the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and state health and education departments.
Board Members Ask Questions, Take Positions
Board member Jennifer Lalor promptly responded to Smith’s comments, with a concern about a “wait and see” approach for any state guidance. After noting that the BOE members had met earlier in the week with the district’s lawyer to ask about options in front of the Board, Lalor echoed some parents who pushed for a plan in place before Feb. 15.
Lalor pressed Smith and the Board to move swiftly.
“If we do get local control, I’d like to have a decision in place, not us waiting,” Lalor said. “We’ve had the time to think about this and to figure out a way to either make it happen or not happen. Waiting for that guidance, and then us figuring something out, I don’t think is the right decision.”
Lalor also went on the record as being in favor of a mask-optional policy.
“I’m in favor of parent choice,” Lalor stated.
BOE policy committee member Ruth DeLuca agreed with a need to have a plan in place — but she said she wanted to make sure that came with guidance from the right medical professionals and epidemiologists.
“[Feb. 15] is when the mandate sunsets, and if the legislature doesn’t act, there is a void to be filled. We need to be mindful that we are not just any school. We are Wilton schools. We are high performing schools. Our doors need to be more than just open. I want our kids in their seats. I want those classrooms well attended. I want our expert faculty to be standing up and teaching the classes and those lessons. To me, attendance rates by both students and staff is very important, because this is the time of the year when learning happens,” DeLuca said.
Low concurred with Lalor and DeLuca on the need for the Board to take more proactive steps to secure local decision-making authority.
“I’d like to bring it home to Wilton,” Low said. “I think that it would be helpful for us as a Board to go ahead and express that to the legislature.”
Low further expressed her belief that the time has come for a more “nuanced” policy rather than a blanket policy that applies to “all kids, all the time, in all schools.”
Low envisioned a plan that offered more flexibility, while still being grounded in metrics and reliable medical advice, and possibly using a tiered approach outlining the conditions in which masks would be optional, recommended or required.
The BOE members expressed their admiration for the letter drafted by the Darien BOE, and suggested that it could serve as a good model. Smith agreed to draft a letter from the district to state legislators and other state officials, outlining the district’s preference for local mask authority but also requesting more guidance on how best to make local decisions
In order to expedite the process, Board members asked Smith to write a draft and email it to each of the members for quick revision feedback, so that the letter could be sent to Hartford immediately after the Board approves a finalized draft at its next meeting on Thursday, Feb. 10.
Smith also agreed to prepare a plan for local decision-making, in the event the state mandate is removed.
Note About ESSER Funding
Wilton resident Katherine Silvan questioned the BOE about accepting ESSER funds and the degree to which funding was dependent on the district’s actions on masks. (The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund was created at the federal level and allocated across the states, with roughly $189 billion in aid for schools to deal with COVID-19 impacts. ESSER was funded early in the pandemic, and significantly increased under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) of 2021.)
“My understanding is that our district is receiving money that nobody knows about in the public and that in order to receive that funding, they have to abide by these mandates,” Silvan said. “I would like to know how much our district is being paid to keep our kids masked and to push these experimental vaccines. I also want to know what is required of the staff and our children to receive this funding. Where is this funding being spent? And most importantly, why is this information not being made public?”
In actually, the ESSER program was designed for a high level of transparency. Neither the federal government nor the states could dictate how the funds could be used by local districts, except for meeting requirements the program was specifically designed for. Examples include:
- Facility repairs/upgrades (such as heating systems and ventilation)
- Purchasing technology
- Plans to address learning loss due, summer programs or other enrichment/intervention activities
- Mental health services and social-emotional learning
With the latest round of ESSER funding, local districts were required to submit plans for ensuring in-person instruction and continuity of services, including all health and safety measures. The plans are updated every six months. Wilton’s plan is posted on the Wilton public schools website.
In addition, during budget meetings, Smith has articulated that ESSER funds have been used to support the hiring of personnel to address accelerated learning, including math interventionists, classroom teachers and a social worker.
“Doing The Best We Can”
Before concluding the mask discussion, Low offered the following comments to the members of the public.
“You know what you feel for your own kids. As a Board, we have to be responsible for 3,603 kids and [roughly] 700 staff,” Low said. “I’m always reminded of that. It’s a lot of people and we’re trying to guide that system to the best of our ability. [We] hope you understand that we’re doing the best we can, as reasonably as we can. I really want to make sure that as we move forward, we try to work within respecting each other, not dividing each other and that we really are all on the same team.”
Correction: an earlier version of the article misquoted one of the public speakers, Jennifer Cannizzaro. It originally quoted part of her statement as heard on the audio playback: “And I’m not just talking about testing positive, [I mean] the maximum death. And [children] bear the maximum detriments from wearing the masks…” Cannizzaro did not intend to say “maximum death,” but the way she initially stumbled over the words made it sound as if she did. We have corrected the quote to read as she intended, which is, “And I’m not just talking about testing positive. And [children] bear the maximum detriments from wearing the masks…”
Letter Sent by Darien Public Schools Board of Education and Superintendent to State Officials
With additional reporting by Heather Borden Herve.