Gov. Lamont speaks at his Monday, Feb. 7 press conference on turning over decisions on mask restrictions in schools to local officials. (CT-N screenshot)

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Feb. 7, Gov. Ned Lamont made an announcement many people have been waiting to hear: he declared the state mandate requiring masks to be worn in schools will expire as of Feb. 28. At that point, decision-making over mask wearing in schools will become the responsibility of local officials and local school districts.

The topic of mandatory mask wearing in CT schools and other restrictions have been debated fiercely recently at school board meetings and elsewhere around the state, including in Wilton, as communities have fought to keep residents healthy while battling fatigue after two years of COVID-19 and mitigation strategies in response to the pandemic disrupting learning and living.

While he believes decision-making on masks in schools should now be at a town’s discretion, Lamont credited his mask mandates and other policies for schools with keeping schools open and kids learning in person through the worst parts of the pandemic.

“A year ago, September, we were one of the first states in the country to have our schools open with masks. … Then just this last September, we were open again and while a lot of our neighboring states further south, for example, opened without any masks, they were constantly opening and closing with lots of quarantine and isolation, which we were able to avoid because we had the mask requirement in place,” he said.

Now, Lamont said, Connecticut is in “a very different place” with more tools to keep schools open, leading him to decide to end the state-wide mask mandate at the end of February.

“Today, with boosters, given vaccines, given the N95 masks, you’re in a better position to keep yourself safe, you’re child’s in a better position to keep themselves safe,” he said.

“The protocol for masks to be worn in schools and child care centers, as of the 28th, will no longer be by order of the state of CT, it will be up to you. It will be up to the superintendents and mayors to make that election themselves,” he said at his Monday press conference.

The local decision making on mask usage would also pertain to interscholastic athletics as well as preschools and daycare, and where younger, unvaccinated children are.

However, Lamont is in favor that the state mask mandate remain in place in healthcare facilities, facilities housing vulnerable populations, public and private transit, and correctional facilities.

Why Did Lamont Make this Decision?

Both Lamont and Dr. Manisha Juthani, the Commissioner of the CT Dept. Public Health (CT-DPH), supported the decision because a variety of metrics show the state is at a very different stage in the pandemic.

“What we’ve seen with this Omicron wave is we have had a very rapid uptick and now we are seeing a much more rapid downtick than what we’ve seen with any previous variant to date. Our case counts are dropping. Our percent positivity is dropping. We have self tests that are ongoing at home, Juthani said.

Dr. Manisha Juthani, CT Department of Public Health Commissioner (bottom) speaks during Gov. Lamont’s Monday, Feb. 7 press conference about mask restrictions eventually being turned over to local control on Feb. 28.
Dr. Manisha Juthani, CT Department of Public Health Commissioner (bottom) speaks during Gov. Lamont’s Monday, Feb. 7 press conference about mask restrictions eventually being turned over to local control on Feb. 28.

The two also pointed to the reduced severity in COVID cases that has accompanied the state’s high rate of vaccination and protocol adherence.

“We also know that vaccines are really good at keeping you out of the hospital and prevent you from dying. A mild case of COVID, even though you’ve been boosted, that adds to the positivity number, but that’s not the same number in terms of severity of disease in our population. Our hospitalizations are coming down. We’re not where we need to be just yet, but they are coming down, and a lot faster than they were in the past,” Juthani explained.

But critical to the decision is how community-specific and localized these details are.

“What we know now is that different communities have different rates. Therefore putting this decision at the local level, where school boards can assess their population and decide with their community, with their other leaders in their community, what works best for them, is something that we are going to be allowing local districts to be making those decisions for those in their community,” Juthani said.

State Department of Education (SDE) Acting Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said now was a good time to “look past the one-size-fits-all” approach to COVID response in schools.

She said that the CT SDE, in conjunction with the CT-DPH, will continue to provide guidance to local leaders, adding that school officials should work with local health officials in making local decisions.

“We are hopeful that this is the next step towards the normalcy that we’re all really working so hard to get back to for our students,” Russell-Tucker said.

Fran Rabinowitz, the executive director of the CT Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) said her organization welcomed the governor’s move.

“If they feel that we are at a place now where we can move to a different path, I’m fine with that. I’m an educator and we will move with our Department of Health and thank the governor and the Department of Health for providing that direction,” Rabinowitz said.

What about the State Legislature?

The state mask mandate has actually been an executive order made by Lamont authorizing the State Department of Education and the CT-DPH to work together in establishing a statewide rule for mask wearing in schools.

That order, along with 10 others still remaining since the start of the pandemic, was set to expire on Feb. 15. That’s when the CT legislature is set to decide whether or not to extend those executive order through legislation.

According to Lamont’s chief of staff Paul Mounds, legislators are in agreement that the state mask mandate can stay in force beyond Feb. 15 to Feb. 28.

Why Feb. 28?

Juthani explained that keeping state control over the mask mandate beyond Feb. 15 until Feb. 28 had to do with better chances for less infection.

“The closer and closer to we get to warmer weather, to the longer days, to times when people can open windows to allow less respiratory viruses, including flu,” she said.

The additional two weeks also gives Lamont a window of discretion, in case COVID spiked again.

“If ‘zombie-cron’ comes along and spikes up as fast as its sister Omicron did, we would reserve the right to make a change in order to keep you safe…. And by the way, we want to do it after the [February school] winter break. We wanted all the kids coming back, getting a fresh start,” the governor added.

Lamont also reserved the right to reverse the decision if community spread was significant again — something he said he’d do “in association with the legislature” as long as it was in session.

Metrics and Guidance

Juthani said state officials would offer guidance to local school districts, but no hard and fast rules for when they should decide to issue mask mandates. Instead, local school districts should look at the local metrics — vaccination levels, cases, hospitalizations — to decide, in consultation with local medical and health officials..

“We have communities that have 90-plus percent of their students vaccinated, and almost 100% of their educators and staff vaccinated in a school building. That’s a very different calculation than if you’ve got 20- or 30% of your students vaccinated, and maybe still your educators are still over 90%. That’s where we will give guidance as to what decision points different districts and boards can make, that’s going to work for their schools,” she said.

Mask-optional schools will also have say over quarantine guidelines, with guidance from CT-DPH.

“We’re giving a lot of discretion to our principals and our superintendents, and Manisha, I’m sure, was going to give some pretty strong guidance on ways that they can keep people safe,” Lamont said.

Personal Responsibility — Get Vaccinated

Lamont and Juthani stressed that for local control to be successful in keeping COVID transmission down, it was important for individuals to be mindful of their own personal responsibility.

“We do need some personal responsibility when it comes to knowing how to live with this virus. If you know you’re vulnerable, if you think you’re going into a setting where you could be particularly vulnerable, wearing a mask is always going to be protective. We’re going to have to learn the interventions to use to take care of ourselves personally,” Juthani said.

However, she said, schools are different and where some decisions for the community need to get made.

“Because it’s a community and that’s where something to take care of the overall community and ultimately keep kids in school, that’s where decisions need to made at that level.”

Lamont chimed in on personal responsibility to encourage anyone who isn’t vaccinated to do so: “You’ve got another three weeks, so here’s your chance to step up. … and make sure your child is vaccinated and safe.”

He added that this next stage offering local control over such decisions as masking and adjusting based on what’s happening at the local level is the new normal.

“We’re two years into this. You’re not going to get an all clear sign, there’s not going to be a day where there’s zero infection and they’ll say, ‘Yippee, we can all get back.’ We know from experience there will be additional ripples as time goes. I think this is the right decision at the right the time. We now know how to live with this. It’s going to be milder, and less impactful, and that means your vaccine, booster and mask are going to be more impactful and able to keep you safe. You’re going to have the discretion to make that choice and I hope you make the right one.”

Wilton Officials Respond

GMW reached out to Wilton officials for responses to the news of Lamont’s announcement.

Board of Education Chair Deborah Low said that the BOE welcomed the governor’s approach.

“Our Board supports local decision-making given where we are at this point in the pandemic. The Board and Superintendent [Kevin] Smith sent a letter earlier this afternoon asking for local-decision making so we were glad to hear the news. In our letter, we also asked for guidance from the CT DPH and CSDE that would help inform and guide our decision-making at the district level. For example, are there metrics, factors, research, etc. that schools might use to support and help interpret local data and local recommendations? The press conference didn’t fully address that but there might be more information coming. But we are happy about the local-level approach outlined by the Governor.

While First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice hadn’t yet read the governor’s official announcement to learn the details, she said she supported local decision making.

“I support the concept of allowing local schools districts to make their own decisions on masking. First selectpersons and mayors were allowed to make decisions for their communities when the universal mask mandate was eliminated. That has worked well,” Vanderslice said.

Low provided GMW with a copy of the letter drafted by Smith and approved by the Board of Education urging state officials to turn over school masking decisions to local school districts. That letter was sent to Hartford on Monday, just before Lamont made his announcement.

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