By Paul Hughes, Republican-American
NEW HAVEN — Gov. Ned Lamont said students, staff and visitors will be required to mask up in Connecticut schools to start the new school year.
With schools reopening in late August and early September, Lamont told reporters in New Haven on Tuesday he believes this is a necessary precaution against the spread of COVID-19. He reiterated his intentions later in the day in New Britain.
Public and private schools remain subject to a public health order dating back to May 19 that requires all people, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks or cloth face coverings inside school buildings. The latest version expires Sept. 30 along with Lamont’s current emergency powers.
“Right now, our existing executive order says everybody in schools wear a mask, all students wear a mask K through 12. At this point, I don’t see that changing,” Lamont said during a morning news conference at the Junta for Progress on the state earned-income tax credit.
“Of course, my executive orders go through Sept. 30, but I think getting our schools off on the right footing makes the most sense,” he added. “I see some of the problems that are happening in a number of the Southern states where the kids are not wearing masks, where they are forced to quarantine, where teachers are getting ill, and we’re not going to let that happen — not in Connecticut.”
Lamont reaffirmed the mask mandate will remain in place at least through September on Tuesday afternoon during an event in New Britain with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference to encourage high school athletes to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“My message to local school districts is this is the rule. This is going to be a statewide mask mandate for all students K through 12. I don’t want a lot of ambiguity there,” he said.
Lamont said he plans to make a formal announcement on school masking guidelines by Thursday.
“It is a hard decision,” he said.
Lamont said he is convinced continuing the mask mandate is the right call given the rising infection and hospitalization rates, and given how masking blunted the spread of COVID-19 last fall when the pandemic was more severe.
He also said the mandate is necessary to protect unvaccinated children. Currently, vaccines are only available to state residents ages 12 and older, none of the three authorized for use in the U.S. have been cleared for younger children.
At this time, only 46% of 12- to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and 58% have had at least one dose, said Dr. Deidre S. Gifford, the acting public health commissioner.
“So, we have a ways to go with our 12- to 15-year-olds to get everybody vaccinated and back to school safely,” she said.
Gifford noted the vaccination rates are higher among 16- and 17-year-olds, with 63% fully vaccinated and 72% having had one dose.
In contrast, 76% of those ages 18 and older are fully vaccinated, and 84% of adults have had at least one vaccine dose.
LAMONT CONTINUED TO RULE out reimposing a statewide mask mandate.
He said he is not ready to issue a broader masking order, and plans to allow municipal leaders and private businesses to continue to make their own policies.
“I don’t think we need to do that on a statewide basis yet,” Lamont said in New Haven. “I’ve got to think about masks in schools on a statewide basis. That’s different. Those are all kids who are unvaccinated.”
Lamont was asked again about a state mandate later in New Britain.
“None of our neighboring states are doing this,” he said. “We’ve got five, 10 of our municipalities that probably have a little lower vaccination rate than the rest of the state that have gone ahead and said they want to mandate that indoors.”
Lamont said he’s finding stores, restaurants and other businesses are being careful to follow the current emergency order, which requires unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors.
“I don’t think we have to make a change at this point,” he said. “None is anticipated.”
LAMONT HAS YET TO DECIDE whether to ask the General Assembly to approve another extension of his emergency powers to manage the state response to the pandemic.
In New Haven, he said it is too premature to say at this time, and he hopes public health conditions will improve so an extension will not be necessary.
“Should the governor request an extension, I would certainly support it,” said Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
Lawmakers will meet next month to decide whether to extend those executive powers for up to six more months, he noted. House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, also has said a decision on another extension must be made in September.
“It could go, potentially, through the beginning of the session in February,” Looney said. “But I think that decision will be made on the state of the pandemic at the time we come in.”
In mid-July, the legislature extended the declarations of public health and civil preparedness emergencies for a fifth time to Sept. 30. No Republican legislators supported the renewals. The emergency declarations grant the governor authority to set rules and modify or suspend state laws, regulations and requirements.
After the July vote, Lamont renewed an executive order granting the state Department of Public Health authority to set masking rules for schools, and other places and settings. On Aug. 7, DPH issued an updated listing that includes inside public and private school buildings at times when students are present, and while students are riding on school buses.
If Lamont makes any revisions to the existing order, the changes would trigger a temporary state law that gives a select committee of the six top House and Senate leaders the power to revoke the revised order.