State releases guidance as masking in schools left to locals

Connecticut officials have released guidance for how K-12 schools across the state should handle face mask rules now that local districts are preparing for the statewide mask mandate to end on Feb. 28.

The public health and education departments are recommending various metrics for districts to consider as they determine whether to continue requiring masks, including the prevalence of local COVID-19 infections, the vaccination status of students, staff and the community, and the amount of planning that’s still needed to accommodate students and staff who might be at greater risk of infection.

“Prior to making any significant changes to the mitigation strategies in schools (including universal mask use), the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Connecticut State Department of Education encourage school districts to consider and discuss the unique complexities of school environments, the environmental conditions inside their school buildings, the health of their school populations, and the conditions in their immediate and surrounding communities,” according to one of the two documents released Friday evening to districts.

The agencies also included recommended steps districts should take if there is an outbreak, including reinstating a localized mask mandate, limiting the mixing of grades and classrooms during meals and recess, and limiting outside visitors.

Last week, the General Assembly voted to temporarily extend some of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s remaining pandemic-related executive orders that were set to expire on Feb. 15, including a statewide mask mandate for schools and child care centers. Lamont, however, said he only wanted to keep the mask mandate in place until Feb. 28., giving local school boards time to decide whether masking is necessary in their schools.

He cited the state’s declining numbers of COVID-19 infections as a major reason, joining other Democratic governors in rolling back the contentious pandemic restriction. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, the rolling average number of daily new cases has decreased by 518.1, a decrease of 36.0%, over the past two weeks.

So far, there have been mixed responses to the anticipated change in statewide masking rules by local school officials. The state’s largest cities – including Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury and Stamford – all plan to still require face masks in schools after Feb. 29 while many other districts have decided to make masks optional, the Hartford Courant reported. Some districts have not yet decided how to proceed and are in the process of surveying parents and staff before making a final decision.

West Hartford is among the dozens of communities in Connecticut that have decided to make masks optional.

“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,” West Hartford Superintendent Thomas Moore wrote in a recent statement to parents. Given his community’s high vaccination rates, plummeting cases in schools and the immunity gained by people exposed to the omicron variant, “March should be a time when West Hartford public schools can move to optional mask wearing.”

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state organization that oversees high school sports, announced Friday it will not require student-athletes to wear masks at outdoor and indoor practices or competitions, as of Feb. 28. However, the updated guidance said student-athletes, officials, coaches, game workers and spectators will follow masking rules issued by the facilities where events are held.

Meanwhile, state officials said school districts will receive additional shipments of COVID test kits before Feb. 28. Two kits are supposed to distributed to each student and staff member. For schools that are ending universal masking on Feb. 28, the state said the kits should be used by all staff and students prior to the mandate being lifted.

“Ideally, one test should be performed at home in the morning prior to leaving for school on the first day optional masking is implemented,” according to the state’s guidance.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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