At last night’s Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice recommended an elimination of the mask mandate for all students and staff effective February 28, the day the winter break ends.
In a community message today, he elaborated on his rationale:
The elimination of the universal mask mandate by the governor, supported by the Commissioner of the Department of Public Health, indicates that universal masking is not a necessary public health intervention at this point in time. If this were a necessary public health intervention, the mandate would continue as it was renewed in the past by the Governor when necessitated.
The infection rates in the region, and in particular the Westport community and Westport Public Schools, have dropped precipitously over the past month. Virus prevalence is a significant factor in determining the need for various mitigating measures, including masking. The prevalence rate is bottoming out, and possibly reaching a level that could be expected to be our new normal.
Westport is among the highest vaccinated communities in the state, providing strong support against health complications as a result of contracting the virus. In addition, the widespread infection rate of the Omicron variant also provided significant levels of natural immunity to our community. Furthermore, this most recent virus strain appears to be less virulent than earlier variants, such as Delta.
Fidelity to mask wearing is critical to the success of this intervention. Throughout the pandemic our students and staff were vigilant in properly wearing masks, and most importantly, time outside of school was largely reinforced by consistency in mask wearing as this was an expectation in all settings for our students (i.e. community places, extracurricular activities, etc.).
However, for our students now, school is one of the few locations where masks are regularly worn and mandated. Additionally, the fidelity of proper mask wearing has waned significantly over the past few months according to faculty and building administrators, particularly at the secondary level. Mask quality has also been called into question during the Omicron surge.
Maintaining a mandate when proper mask wearing is limited, and when most students do not wear masks outside of the school setting while interacting with each other, provides a false sense of security and a false impression of the efficacy of mandated universal masking in our schools.
Scarice noted that mitigation measures like ventilation, social distancing and hand hygiene will continue to be implemented. Serial testing will continue through the end of March. Daily reports of new cases will also continue, and local conditions will be monitored closely.
Students, their families, and anyone on our WPS team may choose to continue to wear a mask, commonly referred to as “one-way” masking. “One-way” masking works and provides protection for an individual.
Eliminating the universal mandate does not eliminate all measures of protection. As we evolve through the stages of the pandemic, I suspect that a gradual lifting of individual choice in masking will unfold. Some will choose to no longer wear a mask and, perhaps over time, others will choose the same. In the interim, “one-way” masking will be honored and respected in our schools, and it will provide additional protection for individuals.
Scarice said that the elimination of the governor’s emergency order means that school districts will no longer need to require proof of vaccination or approval of a medical or religious exemption from vaccination for prospective employees.
Also eliminated: the requirement for employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. And the district will no longer require vaccination, or proof of a negative test, for visitors.
Scarice’s recommendations apply to all students and stuff, including Stepping Stones Preschool.
Federal requirements still mandates that masks be worn on school buses.
It has been pointed out that students return from the February break when the mask mandate is lifted. There have been concerns about a potential spike in infection rates upon return from vacation.
I do not see the recent winter break as an appropriate comparison since that surge was driven by the Omicron variant.However, we did experience a number of families traveling during the Thanksgiving break and did not experience an increase in infection rates.
Furthermore, I believe that a continued mandate in response to the vacation break would have minimal impact in mitigation as students are largely not wearing masks in any other activities or events in the community.
As mentioned earlier, throughout the pandemic students were vigilant in properly wearing masks, and most importantly, time outside of school was largely reinforced by consistency in mask wearing as this was an expectation in all settings for our students (i.e. community places, extracurricular activities, etc.).
However, if school is the only location where masks will be mandated following the vacation, I believe that we would gain little more than a false sense of security and a false impression of the efficacy of mandating masks in schools for an additional week or two. Again, students and staff may continue with “one-way” masking.
Given our high vaccination rates, the lack of an increase in infection rates after Thanksgiving, and the inconsistency in the fidelity of mask wearing, in and outside of our school environment, I do not believe that postponing the elimination of the mask mandate is necessary.
As to enforcing “one-way masking,” Scarice said:
Individuals (i.e. students and staff) may choose to continue to wear a mask. The district, all faculty, support staff and administrators, support this choice for individuals. However, we will not have the capacity to track and enforce individual choice for each student if parents require their child to continue wearing masks. As a district, we will honor and support each family’s choice, yet we will not enforce “one-way” masking for each child.
Scarice asked that parents help with the transition away from a mask mandate:
Preparing for change by engaging in a conversation and allowing your child to ask questions can reduce any stress and anxiety.
Some students may be eager to remove their mask and return to some sense of normalcy. For others, this change can create anxiety for a variety of reasons, including health concerns and fears about being judged for wearing or not wearing a mask.
As in most situations, children follow the example of their parents and primary caregivers. Expressing your thoughts and feelings about masking and unmasking will be important to help your child understand why your family has made the choice to continue or discontinue wearing a mask in school.
Students will be reminded at school that each family is making a decision based on what is best for them, as we all have different circumstances. There is no right or wrong. We want to be sure everyone feels safe and accepted in school, whether they are wearing a mask or not.
Children should be encouraged to state that they feel more comfortable wearing or not wearing a mask and that it’s OK if their friend chooses something different. If at any time your child feels that others are making them feel uncomfortable about wearing or not wearing a mask, they should let their teacher or another trusted adult at school know immediately.
Similarly, parents are encouraged to contact their child’s teacher or building principal if they have concerns. School psychologists, counselors, and social workers are available to support students if needed.
Navigating this transition in school is new for everyone, and we will need to work together to support our children through this new experience.
As I stated in my message to the community on Friday, many issues in the modern world have become polarizing, including universal masking. The district team is committed to supporting the personal choice of each individual student and staff member, and to protecting everyone in our school community from unwelcome comments and behaviors.
Lack of respect or inappropriate comments or behaviors will not be tolerated as families consider what is best for their child and family.
We will continue to carefully monitor case rates and attendance and evaluate any new guidance issued by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Adjustments to our approach will be made as necessary.