Valley School Districts begin announcing mask optional policies
Feb. 24 update: This week, the Avon School District also announced that it will move to a "mask optional" policy. See updated article in the March 4 edition of The Valley Press.
By John Fitts Staff Writer
At least three Farmington Valley School Districts have announced "mask optional" policies that will take place in schools later this month. In the last two days, Canton, Farmington and Simsbury have all announced mask optional policies to begin Feb. 28.
The actions follow Gov. Ned Lamont's recent announcement that he planned to end school mask mandates on that date.
Farmington Public Schools Superintendent Kathleen C. Greider sent a letter to parents Feb. 16. In part, she stated that the district will follow guidance from the Department of Public Health and the Connecticut State Department of Education and not require masks in the schools as of the 28th.
She did, however note that several public health experts still recommend their use.
"While DPH and the Farmington Valley Health District (FVHD) continue to encourage mask wearing as one of an array of mitigation practices we implement, it will become optional on that date," she wrote. " It is important to note that DPH and CSDE are authorized to reimpose the mask mandate, per the latest action by the Connecticut General Assembly, at any time during this school year should health conditions warrant such a change."
Masks will still be required on school buses and vans, Greider noted.
Simsbury superintendent Matt Curtis also sent out a letter on Feb. 16, according to the district web site, noting several factors including guidance by state and local agencies, high vaccination rates, the availability of test kids, and the continued employment of other mitigation strategies.
In Canton, Superintendent Kevin Case made a similar announcement on Feb. 17, also effected on Feb. 28 and also noting that, due to federal law, they will be required on buses.
"Local school districts and municipalities have now received assurance that the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) and the State Department of Education (SDE) are aligned with the Governor in allowing the mask mandate for schools to expire," he wrote. "We have seen a dramatic decrease in COVID positive cases in Connecticut, the Farmington Valley and in the Canton Community. Many of our age – eligible students are fully vaccinated or have initiated the process. Our district also has a supply of home test kits available. Families can request a self-test kit from any of our school nurses."
Case also noted that other mitigation strategies will remain in effect and that the guidance was subject to change.
Masks use at schools has been a flashpoint of controversy and the issue heated up again in recent weeks, with many parents speaking at recent Board of Education meetings and writing letters.
In Canton, for example, several parents spoke at a Feb. 8 Board meeting and several more wrote in as well. Many of the parents spoke against mask mandates, advocating parental choice and/or contenting they weren't effective or caused emotional harm. Some parents wrote in support of keeping the policy in place but in recent weeks those opposed to mandates have been most vocal.
The issue has been one of strong debate on social media and some community members in Canton openly defied the mask policy at recent school events.
In his letter and others, Case acknowledged it's been a hotly debated topic but urged community members to keep the conversation civil.
"We urge all of our community members to continue to be respectful of others who have a different opinion on this matter and of those who will need or choose to continue to wear masks. Let’s continue to be supportive of one another," he wrote. "This support is what makes our Canton Community a great place to live and learn."
Greider also noted questions about local control that arose after the governor's announcement.
"We have received questions about local school district control related to this decision," she wrote. "As we currently understand it, the only decision for local school districts, beginning February 28th, would be not to follow the guidance that masks are optional per the decisions of the Commissioners of the DPH and the CSDE and instead continue to require that students, faculty, staff and others wear masks when in school. However, for the Farmington Public Schools, this state-level action signals that it is time to move to a place of greater normalcy within our schools."
While the Canton Board of Education on Feb. 8 noted that the issue would be debated at their meeting next week, Case's letter states that the board does not need to take formal action.
Curtis also noted that the Simsbury Board of Education didn't need to take a vote, was supportive of the direction and appreciative of feedback. He also addressed the different reactions the announcement would bring.
"We recognize that this decision will be met with very different reactions – from celebration to sincere anxiety," he wrote. "Moving forward, we implore all stakeholders to respect those differences in opinion. Please have a family conversation about respecting the differences that exist on this issue and respect the choice of others without public judgment. As Superintendent, I have been proud of the way our community has handled the evolving controversies as a result of the pandemic. At this critical moment, that positive spirit in our community must continue."