Lining up to lift mask mandates
Applause erupted in the high school library when the Montville Board of Education met last week. The spontaneous audience joy was a reaction to the board's vote to suspend the school system's mask mandate as of March 1.
The Stonington Board of Education listened to public comment for two hours at its Feb. 17 meeting before it, too, voted to suspend the school mask mandate in Stonington Public Schools as of Feb. 28.
In Preston and Lyme-Old Lyme, mask mandates will also end at the end of this month.
With some notable exceptions — New Haven and Hartford among them — school districts across the state are lining up to lift mask mandates at the end of the month. Even as many school officials say they will recommend masking and others stress the importance of supporting students, teachers and staff who decide to continue to mask, the trend to unmask in schools is unmistakable.
Gov. Ned Lamont paved the way for these decisions when he announced early in February he was lifting the statewide school mask mandate and leaving the decision about the issue up to local school boards. In the face of intense pandemic fatigue as the state approaches the two-year anniversary of widespread COVID-induced shutdowns and restrictions, school boards were left in a largely no-win situation. On one hand, public health districts continue to report high rates of community transition of COVID and some teachers unions are pushing to maintain mask wearing in schools. On the other, an increasingly vocal segment of the public is pushing to end the mandates and the state Department of Public Health late last week issued guidelines for COVID management that resemble those used for other routine diseases such as the seasonal flu.
The data, however, delivers a much more cautionary tale for school boards. Ledge Light Health District included this in its most recent COVID-19 report, for example: "Although the number of new cases and hospitalizations continues to decrease, we are still experiencing high average daily case rates, and a continued focus on preventing transmission is important." In the past two weeks, average daily case rates ranged from a high of 49.3 in Ledyard to 30.8 in Lyme, according to district data. Health district data also shows that the number of cases among people under age 30 was 321, or more than twice the number of cases among those 60 and older.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control shows more than 2,000 people a day are still dying of COVID-19. This rate is about even with the rate from one year ago, a time when the rollout of vaccines was just gaining steam.
There's no doubt that vaccines and treatments mean we are in a much different place in the battle against COVID than we were two years ago. Still, it's disturbing to think the public has become complacent, if not accepting, of the high death toll the virus continues to cause and is more concerned with a desire to no longer be inconvenienced.
As more school districts lift mask mandates, we believe it's also imperative that school officials carefully monitor their local conditions and take whatever steps are needed to ensure students remain in classrooms. Even with mandatory masking, school districts struggle with high rates of student and teacher absenteeism.
The pandemic has dealt us one surprise turn after another in the past two years. We all can hope the virus' ability to surprise has run its course, but we must be prepared to react appropriately if it has not.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.