As of Feb. 28, 2022, masks will not be required to be worn in West Hartford Public Schools by teachers, students, or staff, or inside libraries and other town facilities, but will still be required on school buses.
By Ronni Newton
The Connecticut Department of Public Health has directed communities to transition to a management rather than an emergency response to COVID-19 and West Hartford Public Schools, along with most districts across Connecticut, will no longer require students, teachers, or staff to wear masks as of Monday, Feb. 28, 2022.
In addition, when the town lifted the universal mask mandate for indoor public spaces as of Feb. 10, certain other facilities still retained their mask requirements along with the schools. Acting Town Manager Rick Ledwith told We-Ha.com Thursday that as of Feb. 28, “we will be following West Hartford Public Schools and lifting our mask mandate at our public libraries, Elmwood and Bishop’s Corner Senior Centers, Veterans Memorial Skating Rink, Westmoor Park and Cornerstone Aquatics Center.”
While masks will not be required in school settings as of Feb. 28 per DPH, the state legislature did grant local boards of education the authority to require masks in individual districts, with the state retaining the authority to reimpose universal requirements through June 30, 2022, if the COVID-19 situation worsens.
The forthcoming “mask optional” policy for West Hartford Public Schools was announced Feb. 11, and students at all grade levels from Pre-K through grade 12, as well as teachers and staff, will not be required to wear masks in the schools past the end of February.
The approach as of Feb. 28 “focuses more on responding to clusters of cases, outbreaks, evidence of ongoing transmission in schools, and/or significant increases in community transmission risk, and relies less on individual case investigation, contact tracing, and quarantining of staff and students following school exposures,” Assistant Superintendent Andy Morrow said in a letter to families on Wednesday.
Masks will not be required for athletic competitions either as of Feb. 28, unless the facility where the competition is taking place requires them. Until at least March 18, masks will still be required on buses, which are subject to federal regulations related to transportation.
The town has a very high vaccination rate – for the general public as well as for school-age children.
In West Hartford, more than 94% of children between 12 and 17 years old are fully vaccinated, and 98.5% have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Among the younger age group who are eligible, 64% of students in West Hartford ages 5-11 have already received one shot, and 60% have had two.
As of Thursday, there were only eight active cases of COVID-19 in West Hartford Public Schools.
Data released by the state on Thursday also reflected decreasing cases in the town as a whole, with West Hartford dropping out of the “red alert” status. The town’s most recently reported 14-day average number of new daily cases per 100,000 of population, which had spiked as high as 156.3 amid the omicron variant surge in January, is now 12.9.
“Case numbers are plummeting certainly from what we saw when we returned in January,” Morrow told the Board of Education during the Feb. 15, 2022 meeting. He noted the high vaccination rates as well. “I think we are comfortable going forward with optional masks.”
Board of Education Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said if concerns arise due to a new spike in cases, the Board will consider voting to reinstate a mask mandate.
In his letter to families on Wednesday, Morrow said “mask-wearing is still recommended as an additional layer of protection,” and will remain a requirement for those returning to school following an infection until they are 10 days past a positive COVID test.
Thomas-Farquharson noted that it is important to support those who continue to wear masks, and Morrow said many students and staff will likely continue to wear them for a variety of reasons and should not be made to feel uncomfortable regarding that choice.
The district will continue to have surgical masks and N95 masks available for those who would like them. Individual contact tracing will be discontinued based on DPH guidance, but voluntary asymptomatic testing will continue, and the COVID dashboard will still be kept up-to-date, Morrow said.
The district has a supply of COVID-19 rapid at-home tests available, and will be receiving an allocation of additional test kits from the state Department of Education by next week for distribution to families and staff. Test kits are also now widely available at local pharmacies or online and the community is encouraged to self-test if they are symptomatic or have been exposed, and if desired prior to the lifting of the universal school mask mandate as well.
Morrow added in his letter that the community should “please keep in mind as we enter this mask-optional period, if the data indicates a surge in community spread or information suggests an active outbreak among students or staff, there is an option of establishing a temporary universal masking policy for students and staff at the school or district level.”
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I love the political science being played out in real life here