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Mask Mandate for Winter Sports Athletes to Remain as West Hartford Schools Head into Holiday Break

West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent's Office. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

At Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, Christmas break came early due to COVID-19.

By Ronni Newton

The coronavirus has been surging in Connecticut over the past few weeks, leading to changes in protocols at schools and the postponement of a plan to allow vaccinated athletes to go mask-less while competing in winter sports.

West Hartford Public Schools closed for the regularly-scheduled holiday break on Thursday afternoon, following a week that saw a spike in COVID-19 cases among the school community. While the break, which runs through Jan. 2, 2022, will allow those who are currently positive to recover from the coronavirus, Superintendent Tom Moore told the Board of Education earlier this week that while he anticipates the surge to continue into the new year he does not plan a return to remote learning.

“We know January is going to be exceptionally busy,” Moore said Tuesday. While he said he knows there will be cases, “we will be open for school.”

With the more contagious variants leading to a greater number of breakthrough cases, there has been and will continue to be a tremendous strain on the availability of substitute teachers, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. “Please have patience with us in January,” Moore said. “Hopefully it will be a quick time period and six weeks from now we will be in a better place.”

According to the West Hartford Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard, as of Dec. 22 there were 44 new cases reported this week.

As of Monday, following the recommendation of the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District amid rising positive cases, the district opted out of the state’s “Screen and Stay” option which allowed unvaccinated students to avoid quarantine if they continued to remain masked and asymptomatic. The district “will reassess the program after the holiday break,” Assistant Superintendent Andy Morrow said in the letter emailed to families noting the positive cases.

At Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, the community began Christmas break a day early. The following message from the administration was sent to families, faculty, and staff on Wednesday afternoon: “This past week has been particularly challenging for the faculty and staff of Northwest Catholic, as the number of positive COVID-19 cases have risen within our community. We at Northwest Catholic believe that our decisions must be data driven and student centered. Therefore, we have been carefully tracking our school data this week. Currently, ten percent of our community have been identified as close contacts. Therefore, we believe it is in the best interest of the entire community for us to begin the Christmas break immediately. There will be no school tomorrow, December 23. School will resume on January 3, 2022, with a white bell order schedule. Students should wear their formal uniforms. The school will be open tomorrow until noon if students need to retrieve any belongings before break.”

Northwest Catholic Director of Communications Elizabeth Figueroa told We-Ha.com that the decision to close for break a day early was “out of an abundance of caution” not a spread at the school.

“We did not want our students possibly exposed before Christmas which is a major Christian holiday. There was no outbreak at Northwest Catholic High School but contact tracing as a routine response to isolated case,” she said in an email.

Basketball games between Northwest Catholic and Hall High School  boys and girls were still set to take place on Thursday – but everyone, including the players, will be required to wear a mask.

While guidance regarding winter sports issued by the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) in late November would have allowed fully vaccinated athletes to forego wearing masks during competition beginning Dec. 23, DPH on Wednesday rescinded that guidance.

“Due to the rapid emergence of the new highly transmissible Omicron variant, the Connecticut Department of Public Health is halting guidance that would have allowed fully vaccinated athletes, coaches, and officials to participate in athletic competitions without masks as of Dec. 23,” Commissioner Manisha Juthani said in a statement Wednesday.

“Although a previous assessment was made by DPH that would have allowed the choice for fully vaccinated participants to unmask during sports competitions, the rapid rise in COVID-19 community case rates and the emergence of this more contagious variant has forced us to reconsider that assessment. Guidance that has been in place for winter sports throughout this season will remain in place,” she said.

“As we’ve done all along, we will follow DPH guidelines to ensure we are providing the safest environment for our student athletes,” West Hartford Athletic Director Jason Siegal said Thursday.

Athletes actively competing in gymnastics, swimming and diving, wrestling, and indoor track throwing and jumping do not have  wear a mask, but must wear one at all other times during meets.

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