Borough eases mask policy: School board to make them optional if state OKs local control

Samantha Ballolli, mother of two children in the Naugatuck school district, speaks to the Board of Education at its meeting on Thursday about masks in schools. She is opposed. Andreas Yilma/Republican-American

By Andreas Yilma Citizen’s News

NAUGATUCK — The Naugatuck Board of Education voted 7-1 to make masks optional if the state hands control to local schools. The board voted after a three-hour, contentious and emotional meeting.

Gov. Ned Lamont has said school districts should make their own calls on whether students, teachers and staff need to don masks, as he believes the state mandate should expire Feb. 28.

The state Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to extend Lamont’s emergency powers concerning the COVID-19 pandemic through June 30, including the mask mandate_ Those powers are set to expire Tuesday. Lamont, however, already has said that even if the Senate approves an extension, he will turn the mask decision over to child care providers and school districts at the end of the month.

In Naugatuck, Board of Education member Jason Celozzi voted no.

Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess, a voting school board member, was not in attendance.

The vote came after the public comments portion of the meeting, which lasted over an hour, with about 50 people present.

Masks still would be required in cases of quarantining, isolation or if state or federal mandates resume, or on buses if the state or federal rules require masks on public transportation, according to the Naugatuck board’s plan.

The majority of two dozen residents, mainly parents, spoke against masks and about how masks negatively impacted their children. Applause burst through the packed meeting room Thursday for nearly every parent who spoke.

N. Warren ‘Pete’ Hess. Contributed

Parents said masks don’t work and negatively impact their children’s learning and social skills. A parent should have the right to choose whether to mask their child, they said.

Jessica Hollister, who has a son in the school district, said she doesn’t feel that her son is being protected by a mask and instead is being hindered by it when he is trying to learn how to speak and read without being able to read people’s faces.

“These kids are supposed to be developing social skills now. My son is in kindergarten. He’s socializing with other kids. I’m being told by my son, multiple other parents, these kids can’t even play together at recess when recess is indoors,” Hollister said. “They’re sitting at their desk playing by themselves. We don’t have people in our lives who have kids his age so school is where he socializes.”

Samantha Ballolli, who has two children at Maple Hill Elementary School, said every morning school is a battle and it harms her children, mentally, emotionally and educationally.

“School is no longer a place children want to be. That is sad,” Ballolli said. “Many students I have talked to over the last few days would not even come today because they are so tired of not being heard. It is time for the Board of Ed to give us back our right of choice.

Sue Wood, who has two kids in City Hill Middle School, said masking should be a personal choice and said she is heartbroken when she sees young children masked.

“I think some of these kids are really dealing with some major issues. I think that’s why they’re acting out. There’s just too much. We have to try to get these kids back to normal,” Wood. “They sit in the auditorium six chairs apart eating lunch on their lap. There’s no social engagements. That’s what we did. They’re not developing friendships.”

Jasmin Wass, who has a son in the school district, teared up talking to the board.

“We have many tools available in 2022 compared to the 2020,” Wass said. “Our policy must be lifted… After our children experienced nearly two years of destructive life, it’s time for us to give their childhood back.”

Jeffrey Litke. Archive

Board of Education Chairman Jeffrey Litke said the board’s policies are adaptable and can change with metrics and guidance but added his goal has always been to keep students, staff and the community healthy and safe.

“I do believe in the parent’s choice in deciding what is right for their child and their family,” Litke said. “It is my understanding the state legislature is discussing this topic over the next couple of days and I believe if and when the governor’s mask mandate is no longer in place, then we should become mask optional.”

Celozzi said he was very moved by parents and wanted the board to issue out a survey to parents and staff to ensure the board heard both sides and to keep his promise of remaining unbiased.

Board members Ethel Grant and Diana Malone agreed about the survey.

Celozzi said he hated masks and wearing them and felt that it does affect learning but added that parents’ choices affect other families.

“I would love for us to get rid of masks but I have a commitment to this community,” Celozzi said.