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Will Connecticut students need to wear masks in the fall?

As public tension surrounding school mask requirements continues to grow across Connecticut, the Brookfield Board of Education has sent a letter to the state Education Department asking officials to provide updated guidance on the matter within the next few weeks and “not let such decisions drag into the summer months.”

“Summer school programs start within the next few weeks. Return-to-school planning is already well underway. Parents need time to make informed decisions. For all these reasons, we urge you to act quickly in addressing state level guidance on this matter,” Rosa Fernandes, the local board of education chair, and Superintendent of Schools John Barile wrote in the Friday letter.

But Connecticut’s Department of Public Health told The Courant on Monday that the state is still waiting for further guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the issue before it makes any announcements.

“As we have said throughout, we will make the best recommendations we can for measures that will need to be taken in the fall to protect our students, faculty and staff based on the information we have from the COVID-19 conditions in our state and guidance from CDC,” DPH spokesperson Maura Fitzgerald said in a written statement. She explained that public health officials are working closely with the state education department on the issue of school mask guidance for the fall.

“However, those recommendations could change at any time if the Delta variant or any other variable negatively impacts community transmission rates, disease severity, vaccine availability or effectiveness, or any of the other factors impacting COVID-19 risk in school settings,” she added.

In late May, as Connecticut lifted most mask requirements for vaccinated individuals, the state Department of Education said children can take off their masks outdoors for physical activities like recess. But students and staff are still required to wear masks inside the school building “at this time.”

State officials noted the requirement was held in place through the end of the 2020-2021 school year largely because many children would not be fully vaccinated before its end. While Pfizer has plans to submit a request to the Food and Drug Administration for an Emergency Use Authorization for children under 12 in September, coronavirus vaccines are not yet approved for that age group.

Still, some Connecticut residents are pushing for the state to end mask requirements in schools, even if public health experts are not recommending it. The CT Liberty Rally, a grassroots organization known for protesting the removal of the state’s religious vaccine exemption, organized a petition to Gov. Ned Lamont to end all mask mandates for children in the state. The group is expected to hold a protest on the issue outside the governor’s mansion Thursday evening.

Brookfield Public Schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday, but Fernandes and Barile wrote in their letter to the state that they are “hearing from a large number of parents on this policy,” some of whom think the mask requirement should be lifted as more residents become vaccinated and rates of community and school transmission are low.

But Dr. Ulysses Wu, system director for infectious diseases at Hartford HealthCare said the arguments that schools do not need masks because of low transmission rates “do not make any sense.”

“Transmission was low in schools because we wore masks and had social distancing,” he said. “If we go to a point where we don’t have masks and we don’t have social distancing and — guess what — we don’t have vaccines that are available [for children under 12], transmission is going to occur.”

As coronavirus strains continue to mutate, their abilities to spread and infect will only become more efficient, Wu added.

According to the CDC, about 58% of all Connecticut residents and 67% of those 12 and older are fully vaccinated. Wu said ideally he’d like the state’s vaccination rate to increase to at least 90% before schools consider ending mask requirements.

“I don’t want to be a ‘glass-half-empty’ person, but I don’t think we’re going to get there because there’s just too much vaccine hesitancy,” he said.

At a board of education meeting in Brookfield last week, after more than a dozen parents weighed in on the mask policy for the 2021-2022 school year, Barile said the district is continuing to follow the state’s guidance but added: “It is my sincerest hope that we can get to a point that we are not wearing masks.”

“It’s very frustrating for us because we want to get working on our plans, but without that guidance, everything is just a guess,” he said.

Like Brookfield, other school districts are releasing tentative plans for what school might look like in the fall, with the caveat that they may change policies depending on CDC and state guidance updates.

Simsbury Public Schools said it will only require masks for all students, staff and visitors should public health or governmental agencies “dictate such a need.”

“Absent the guidance for such, masks will be optional,” states the district’s “Safe Return to School” plan.

Westbrook Public Schools said that as of mid-May, all students and staff will continue to be required to wear face coverings inside all school buildings and on school buses during the 2021-2022 school year, as well as during large outdoor events if social distancing is not possible or if the event requires participants to be stationary for extended periods of time. 

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