Region 16 officials say hands are tied on mask mandate

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By Elio Gugliotti, Editor

Region 16 Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin, right, speaks during a forum as Board of Education Vice Chairman Robert Hiscox listens Aug. 9 at Long River Middle School in Prospect. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

PROSPECT — Students and staff will be required to wear face masks when they return to school, a decision Region 16 officials say was taken out of their hands.

Officials were planning to make masks optional when students return to school Aug. 30, but Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said the state is requiring masks be worn in schools and on school buses under an executive order that runs through Sept. 30.

“This decision was taken out of our hands,” said Yamin during an Aug. 9 community forum on the region’s return-to-school plan.

In Aug. 7 letter, which Yamin distributed, state Department of Public Health Acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford listed preK-12 public and private schools and school buses as places that everyone has to wear masks, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status, unless they have an exemption.

This also means that students participating in indoor extracurricular activities, like sports, will be required to wear masks, Yamin said. Outdoor activities don’t require students to wear them.

Students and staff that are vaccinated will not have to quarantine if they are exposed to someone with COVID-19, under the plan.

Yamin said reasonable accommodations, like face shields or greater social distancing, will be made for students with disabilities.

“We don’t want kids not to be allowed in school because you might have some students who are going to have challenges wearing masks,” Yamin said.

Yamin said the district will also work to accommodate children with health issues when masks are no longer required.

Some of the few dozen parents who attended the forum, which was also live streamed, in-person questioned what they can do if they are opposed to their children wearing masks. Several parents urged school officials to do more to fight the mandate.

Surveys conducted by the region in June showed that about 74% of parents and 62% of staff that responded felt students shouldn’t have to wear masks this coming school year.

“It feels like our rights as parents are being taken away,” Nicole Gaspar said.

Yamin said people who are upset should speak with state legislators to address the mandate.

The region is not offering remote learning like it did last school year, unless schools are forced to due to a spike in coronavirus cases. Yamin said parents who don’t want to their child to wear a mask will have to homeschool their children.

Officials are discussing a potential remote learning option after school, likely for a couple hours, for students that may not come to school or are forced to quarantine.

“It’s not off the table completely for us to come up with some type of help for kids that don’t come to school,” Yamin said.

Yamin said school officials are committed to in-person learning in the region, which is composed of Beacon Falls and Prospect. He said officials want to get back to more personal instruction in small groups.

Board of Education Vice Chairman Robert Hiscox said he would love to see children back in school without masks, but the board has to follow state requirements.

“It’s unfortunate that the decision is totally out of our hands at this point,” said Hiscox, who noted the board will continue to review the plan.