Parents, educators share thoughts on handling of COVID in schools

Anti-mask advocates from around the state gather in front of the governor’s residence in Hartford in late June to protest his mask mandate for school children. The rising number of Delta variant infections are a reason to be concerned in Connecticut. (Jim Shannon Republican-American)

By Lance Reynolds Republican-American

A day after Gov. Ned Lamont said he may leave mask decisions up to local school districts, teacher union reps and parents made their differing perspectives known during Wednesday’s state Board of Education meeting in Hartford.

The current mandate that all people mask up in schools and on school buses regardless of vaccination status has been in place since September 2020 and is set to expire Feb. 15, along with the rest of Lamont’s executive orders.

Teachers are focused on continuing in-person learning in the safest manner possible, said Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union representing 150 districts. She told state school board members and meeting attendees she believes a continuation of the mandate is needed at least for the foreseeable future.

“No one would be happier to say this is over than a group of teachers, but alas it’s not over,” Dias said. “My teachers work in buildings that are not properly ventilated. … Teachers have to open their windows for ventilation which when it’s negative degrees is a bad idea.”

Before Tuesday’s stance from Lamont, the governor looked to the state General Assembly to consider legislation regarding the school mask mandate_ If left to local control, the mandate could become recommended state guidance, he told reporters Tuesday.

Glenn Lungarini, executive director of Connecticut Association of Schools, expressed concern whether regional school districts will be able to ensure consistency in mask decisions if they share multiple health districts. The rural Region 12 district of Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater, for example, partners with the New Milford and Newtown health districts.

Naugatuck Board of Education member and father Aaron McCool attended Wednesday’s state school board meeting after attending the borough Board of Mayor and Burgesses meeting Tuesday. There, he asked the board to adopt a resolution that local officials should make decisions for Naugatuck and not state officials. Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess, though, declined the request.

“You all keep on working really hard, and we thank you for all the time and effort you put into not only educating our students but controlling them and punishing our students,” McCool told state school board members. “And because we can’t punish the parents, let’s just kick the kids because we know how to kick them when they’re down.”

Gov. Ned Lamont greets students from Jonathan Law High School in Milford as they arrive at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury for their prom last year. Jim Shannon Republican American

About 1,138 staff members across the state’s 205 school districts tested positive for the virus last week, the latest weekly figures show. About 6,024 students were infected, figures show. Both are down from their record highs, 2,955 staff on Jan. 5 and 15,743 students on Jan. 12. There are about 500,000 students and 52,000 staff in Connecticut public schools.

About 43% of children in the 5-to-11 age group have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 33% are fully vaccinated, state figures show. For the 12-to-17 age group, those percentages increase to 81 and 73, respectively.

More than 90% of Connecticut school employees were fully vaccinated as of November

The American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut is recommending the mask mandate stay in place, said Mary Yordon, union vice president, which represents 10,000 certified teachers in 19 districts.

“We are very highly vaccinated, we are very cautious, but there’s still a lot of COVID in our schools,” she said. “It is not a comfortable time but we all show up and do our job. … February 15 is not the right time to eliminate masks from schools.”

McCool read a letter from a sixth-grade teacher in North Stonington who couldn’t attend the meeting. The teacher is a member of Constitution State Educators, a Facebook group created in January that has 285 members. He told the state school board to stand up for students’ rights to breathe freely.

“They’ve not only failed to stand up for these students and teachers but also ignored and even belittled teachers who’ve asked for support,” the teacher wrote of CEA and AFT-CT. “In fact, the unions have been cheerleaders for the governor’s abusive power.”