Groton Board of Education officially suspends mask policy after debate at meeting
Groton — The Board of Education officially voted to suspend the school district's mask policy, after debate from parents and school board members.
Superintendent Susan Austin had informed families and staff that the school district was moving to have mask choice, starting Monday, but the board took an official vote at its board meeting late Monday.
The action by the school board gives the superintendent the flexibility to monitor COVID-19 trends and then make the decision based on conditions. For example, Austin said, if coronavirus cases increase in the future, she could switch gears and temporarily mandate mask-wearing for a week or two, without needing board approval.
The school board heard from parents on both sides of the issue.
Resident Mike Whitney said during public comment that he had grave concerns with the lifting of the mandate, how the decision was made and that the board is publicly discussing the issue only after a letter already went out to the school community.
"We know masks have helped protect those wearing masks and the people around them," he said. "The school mask mandate has helped prevent COVID infections, reduce community spread and keep our schools open."
He said it's too soon to make masking optional, particularly with the new omicron variant on its way. He also cited that in Groton, 68% of 12- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated and 32% of 5- to 11-year-olds are vaccinated.
Portia Bordelon, a Town Council member who was speaking as a constituent, asked how staff would honor the wishes of parents who want their young elementary school-age children, who still need bathroom and hand-washing reminders, to be masked during the day.
Austin later said primary teachers are communicating with parents of the youngest learners.
Sarah Hillman said people in the community talk about children who had skyrocketing anxiety and depression and are now overcome with joy and thrilled to return to school without masks.
Hillman said a mother and father recently commented at a Stonington Board of Education meeting that "there's a new party, and it's of parents who will hold the line and make sure that our children deserve and get the freedom that they are entitled to and deserve." She said similarly there is a group of parents in Groton that will hold the line and support mask choice.
Courtney Richards said both she and her first grade son's teacher noticed the difference in her child when he was able to go to school without a mask. She said he was happy and didn't have any issues with schoolwork, whereas before he was shutting down.
She added that no judgment should be made whether a child does or does not wear a mask.
Tara Ciccketti Bennett, a parent and an educator in another district, said it was extremely difficult to teach English as a second language while wearing a mask.
Austin said a section of the school district's website details how the decision was made according to public health guidelines. She said she worked with superintendents in the area and health experts.
In a parent survey, with 2,307 responses, 89.5% of parents wanted to have the choice of whether their child will wear a mask; 61.3% said their child will no longer wear a mask, while 38.7% said their child will continue to wear a mask. Among a survey of staff, with 611 responses, 82.7% of staff wanted to make a choice; 51.2% said they will continue to wear a mask, while 48.8% will no longer wear a mask.
Austin also said there is a second set of guidelines for school districts transitioning to a model of routine prevention and then what measures to take if there is a community surge of coronavirus cases or an outbreak in schools.
Board members weigh in
Board Chairwoman Kim Shepardson Watson and board members Andrea Ackerman, Dean Antipas, Elizabeth Porter, Beverly Washington and Jay Weitlauf voted in favor of suspending the mask mandate, while Katrina Fitzgerald voted against it and Matthew Shulman abstained.
Weitlauf thanked everyone who spoke at the meeting and who emailed, called and messaged the board with their views.
"However, I'm not in a position to make a scientific judgment and so I'm deferring to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Connecticut Department of Public Health and our local health authorities to determine where the state is going to go, and if any of that guidance should change, then rather than hold an emergency meeting the superintendent can respond to that change," he said.
Antipas said he preferred that the mask policy be revoked but would support suspending it if that were the only option, and expressed frustrations. He said kids are the least vulnerable population and should never have been masked to begin with.
"People who are waiting for no cases, let me tell you something coronavirus — thank you, People's Republic of China — coronavirus is going to be with us, kind of like the cold, which is exactly kind of what it is," he added. "That's what a cold is — a coronavirus. It's going to blow through the planet. We're going to have these periodic outbreaks, call it a pandemic, endemic, what have you. Well, let's mask now, mask tomorrow, mask forever if we want to. I choose not to live that way."
He added that he got his shots. He said he regrets that his children got them, and one didn't: "God help us if those things prove to be a bigger problem than they're a help."
"This is a really difficult decision, and I want people to understand that we don't take this very lightly," Porter said. "I understand the fear. I also understand that I have a choice, and the choice I make for me and mine may not be the choice that you make for yours."
She said some people in other countries have walked around with masks decades ago and continue to wear them, so it's a choice. She added it's come to a point where it's now a parent choice and it's not the same situation as two years ago. She mentioned that her daughter is a COVID nurse and has seen more than 60 people die. But she said mask-wearing is still a choice.
"It's not an easy thing but I think it's time we have to follow what our hearts tell us and I have to say I'd like to go with choice," she added.
Washington said she thinks masking for the initial maybe 18 months did "save a lot of us from dying, but I do believe it's a choice now that things are getting a lot better, and people should have a choice whether they want to wear one or not."
Earlier in the meeting, she had said she would have preferred to wait until mid-March to suspend the policy to make sure the numbers were stable but the letter was already sent out to the community.
Weitlauf said it's important that other people respect one another's choices. For students and staff who continue to wear masks, he encouraged them to wear high-quality masks, such as N95s. He agreed that mask-wearing saved a lot of lives before vaccines, but now the landscape has changed.
He pointed out that the board is suspending the policy, not revoking it, because he doesn't know at this point what will happen with COVID-19 cases in the future.
Fitzgerald asked for the percentage of students who are unvaccinated.
Austin said the school nurses have the information about student vaccinations, which she said is private. But she said that there were about dozen vaccination clinics with about 200 Groton students and adults, and another about 10 clinics for young students with approximately 100 in each clinic.
She said 97% of staff members are vaccinated.
She also said the schools have ample masks, as well as COVID-19 test kits, for students that need them.
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