Government Schools

West Hartford Public Schools to Become ‘Mask Optional’

Students exit the bus and head into Wolcott Elementary School. First day of West Hartford Public Schools. Sept. 1, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore sent a letter to families Friday afternoon indicating that as of Feb. 28, masks will be optional in all West Hartford Public Schools. [Updated]

By Hugh McQuaid, CTNewsJunkie.com and Ronni Newton, We-Ha.com

Local boards of education across Connecticut are deliberating the emotionally-charged issue of whether students should continue to wear masks in their classrooms in the absence of a statewide mandate that has settled the question for the last two years.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration plans to stand down the classroom COVID mitigation policy at the end of February. And while the state House of Representatives voted late Thursday to give the administration authority to reimpose the requirements if the virus situation worsens, the immediate change finds districts in a position of either sunsetting the requirement or imposing their own policies.

The relatively limited warning given by the state has education officials in many towns moving quickly to offer guidance to parents.

In West Hartford, for instance, Board of Education Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said officials planned to announce a qualified mask-optional policy on Friday afternoon, with other mitigation strategies like social distancing remaining in effect. She said it was not an easy decision for the board.

“It certainly was not done with ease,” Thomas-Farquharson said. “Any decision made regarding our young people has been done with vigilance because it is our priority to care for their safety and wellbeing. So decisions have been made based on the science and recommendations of our experts.”

If West Hartford’s COVID metrics worsen, Thomas-Farquharson said the board reserved the right to reinstate a masking requirement. However, the town benefited from high vaccination rates of both the general public and its 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 Friday, there were only a dozen active cases of COVID-19 in West Hartford Public Schools, and according to Thomas-Farquharson, there had been no new cases reported in the past week.

West Hartford Public Schools COVID dashboard Feb. 11, 2022

“Ultimately, this decision rests with the Board of Education, but after speaking to superintendents from across the state, I believe that the vast majority of districts will be mask optional,” Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said. “West Hartford, with our high vaccination rates and plunging case numbers, will be well positioned to be mask optional in March.”

Moore’s letter to families, which was sent via email Friday afternoon, can be found below.

Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said the question posed a “huge issue” for boards in some districts and officials in many towns were waiting for guidance expected next week from the Department of Public Health and the state Department of Education.

“Some districts do not think now is the time. Some board chairs think now is the time to make these changes,” Rader said. “They’re still all waiting to see what they will hear from the state Department of Education and DPH.”

Rader said he expected some towns would seek to gather more input from their own public health officials and residents before arriving at a policy in the limited time available by the end of the month.

They may do a public hearing, they may do a survey. There are a lot of ways to gather the information,” Rader said. “I’m sure districts would like a little more time but this is what they’ve been given and they will work through it with their superintendents and make their decisions.”

Thomas-Farquharson said it was important that everyone in the community work together to help ensure the virus situation stays at a manageable level.

The district will continue to maintain its COVID dashboard, she said, and contact tracing will continue as well.

“Our whole community is accountable. We all have to be responsible,” she said. “We all have to continue practicing mitigating measures and interventions because what one does impacts us all. So we must collectively work together as a community.”

Thomas-Farquharson said Friday that for months the district has been hearing from parents asking for children to be unmasked. Over the past week, with the announcement that the state mandate may be changing, some parents have ask the Board to maintain the mandate. Most, however, have asked for it to be discontinued.

“Our choice going forward is because of the science,” she said.

“We still want to support those who contuse to wear masks,” Thomas-Farquharson added.

Meanwhile, Cheshire Public Schools released guidance Friday morning announcing it would adjust its school masking requirements in response to three metrics: community vaccination rates, COVID positivity, and new cases per 100,000 residents. Town officials planned to review the data on Thursdays and if they found at least two of the three metrics in “optimal” condition, masks would be considered optional for the next week.

“Masks have been proven to be a significant mitigating factor in the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Of course, the wearing of masks can also present challenges of comfort, audibility, and expression,” the Cheshire guidance states. “Our medical advisors have agreed that if we meet the threshold for two or more of these criteria, masks may be considered optional in schools.”

The policy will not go into effect until March, but as of Thursday, only Cheshire’s vaccination metric was in a satisfactory place, meaning masks would continue to be required until the situation improved.

Text of Letter from Tom Moore:

Dear West Hartford Community,

I hope this message finds you well. I wanted to write to try and clarify some points regarding the governor’s press conference this week, and the vote in the legislature regarding extending the governor’s executive orders. Here is what I know that might clear up some things:

  • If the extension is voted down, the order for mandatory masking in schools will end next week. The extension was approved by the House, and awaits a Senate vote next week.
  • If the executive order is extended, masking orders for public school extend beyond next week. The executive order actually empowers the education commissioner, in consultation with the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, to decide on whether or not to institute a mask mandate. This week, Charlene Russell-Tucker, Connecticut’s Education Commissioner, and Dr. Manisha Jhutani, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, have stated that if this happens, they will recommend mandatory masking in Connecticut’s schools continue until the end of February.
  • Based on either scenario, mandatory masking in Connecticut’s public schools ends within the next month, unless a local Board of Education creates a new mask mandate.

Many have written to me this week to let me know their thoughts on masks in school. There is no one unified opinion, be it among parents, teachers, or students. The reality now is that the Department of Public Health has stated that in many places in Connecticut, it is the right time, and safe, to move away from mandatory masking. When we look closer at the situation here in West Hartford, I am so thankful for all that has been done by our community in order to make our children and families safer. Our vaccination rates are within the top five of any community in the state, far outperforming state and national averages for school aged children:

  • 94% of our 12-17 year olds are fully vaccinated, with over 98.5% having had at least one shot.
  • 64% of our 5-11 year olds have already had their first shot, and almost 60% have had two shots.

With these high vaccination numbers, and with cases plummeting in our schools (out of over 11,000 staff members and students, we currently have a dozen cases), as well as the immunity gained by so many having been exposed to omicron, March should be a time when West Hartford Public Schools can move to optional mask wearing.

For almost two years, we have dealt with COVID, its variants, and the multiple impacts it has had on our children, our staff, and our entire community. When we began the year, I hoped we would soon move away from masks, but then delta and omicron made that unwise. As we look to the future with COVID, and beyond the pandemic phase, we assume that there will be more hills and valleys. When things are better, though, I believe it is best for our students to strive for as much normalcy as possible. I know that if things take a turn for the worse in terms of case numbers, hospitalizations, or dangerous new variants, our Board of Education will convene and create a new mask mandate for West Hartford Public Schools, as the decision is ultimately theirs.

We will maintain other mitigation strategies, continue to report cases on our dashboard, and as weather warms, again utilize our outdoor spaces. Our voluntary asymptomatic testing program also continues. It is completely understandable that many students and staff will still be wearing masks for a variety of reasons, and no one in our community should feel uncomfortable in choosing to wear a mask. We will continue to have surgical and N-95 masks available for students and staff who request them. Our teachers have a remarkably difficult job in educating our children, and, for now, enforcing mask wearing will not be in their list of so many vital tasks.  As transportation is covered under different federal guidance, students and adults will still be required to wear masks on our school buses.

More information and specifics will follow in the coming days and weeks, when we know more about exactly what the legislation says. Before then, however, I wanted you to have this information about how we intend to move forward. As always, thank you for your partnership and support of our children.

Be Well,

Tom Moore

Republished with permission from CTNewsJunkie.com, all rights reserved.

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