Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice, pictured at a meeting last year, will consider if COVID “metrics” continue moving in the right direction when deciding whether to end the local mandate on wearing masks in Westport’s schools by the end of February. / File photo

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — Parents of children in Westport’s school should learn before February recess whether masks will become optional for students when they return to classes Feb. 28.

That is the date the statewide mask mandate imposed by Gov. Ned Lamont will end and local school districts will be allowed to decide for themselves.

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice told the Board of Education on Monday that his decision will be made in consultation with local health experts and more guidance from the state.

The decision also will be influenced by local metrics, which, at the moment, are headed in the right direction.

COVID cases drop from Omicron surge

There were 47 positive COVID-19 cases reported among Westport students and school staffers last week, down from 331 a few weeks ago. There had been more than 50 new cases daily during the height of the surge of the Omicron variant.

Suzanne Levasseur, the school district’s health services supervisor, called the latest data quite low.

Coupled with the town’s high vaccination rate, Levasseur said, “We are really in a good place.”

Vaccinations credited for making schools a “different place”

Lamont, announcing his decision to end the school mask mandate earlier Monday, pointed to the impact of vaccinations and booster shots as the primary reason for the change.

“I think we’re in a very different place than we were six months ago, certainly a very different place than we were a year ago,” he said. “The biggest difference I can tell you is the fact that we now have the tools to keep ourselves safe.

“Back then, if Typhoid Mary or COVID Ken walked into a store, they had to be masked because they can put themselves at risk, and they could put everybody else around them at risk. I think today with boosters, given vaccines, given the N95 masks, you are in a better position to keep yourself safe. Your child is in a better position to keep him or herself safe,” he said.

Parents support ending local schools’ mask mandate

Dan Orlovsky, whose children attend Westport schools, told Board of Education members Monday they should consider making mask wearing optional since many medical professionals now say masks are no longer needed. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

“Just be patient,” Scarice told the school board and an audience of parents, many of whom urged the district switch to a mask optional policy.

“We can potentially see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Dan Orlovsky, who has four children in Westport’s schools.

For Orlovsky, mask choice is not just opinion, but backed by medical professionals who say they are no longer needed in schools.

One of those professionals is Louis D’Onofrio, DNP, college professor and parent of two children in the district, who said he has published studies on COVID-19. He is also the former director of clinical services for the Westport-Weston Health District, who has filed suit against the agency, and ran as the Libertarian candidate for selectman last year.

“Let parents make the decision and start moving toward normalcy,” D’Onofrio said. “This is a step.”

John Raho, another parent, said requiring students to wear masks in school when they don’t wear them anywhere else makes no sense.

Parent John Raho told the school board that requiring students to wear masks in school makes no sense if they don’t have to wear them elsewhere. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

Susan Aitkin said forcing students to wear masks when they have trouble hearing the teachers or reading facial cues is making learning harder and mental health concerns worse.

A year and a half after the school mask mandate was imposed, Catherine Carr, the mother of three young children, said she is waiting for a return of normalcy.

“Still requiring masks clearly is control masquerading as science,” Carr said. “Everything about masking our children is unnatural and wrong.”

Mask wearing has been mandated for everyone is school buildings across the state and locally since students returned to school in the fall of 2020 after the initial COVID lockdown.

When the Omicron variant was overwhelming the district in early January, Westport school officials increased mitigation efforts. Measure included requiring students to wear masks outdoors and offering remote learning options for some students quarantining because they had the virus or those isolating because they came in contact with someone else who did. Both practices have since ended.

The district is still offering voluntary testing for the virus. The vaccine mandate for district employees remains in place.

Board member Robert Harrington asked whether the decision to make masks optional was a decision for the board or superintendent.

The decision was given to the superintendent when the school district’s COVID protocol was drawn up in the summer of 2020.

Governor: “Zombie-cron” variant could cause reversal

Lamont said Monday the state can pivot in the coming days or weeks if the COVID case rates again begin to rise.

“If ‘zombie-cron’ comes along and it spikes up as fast as its sister Omicron, we would reserve the right to make a change in order to keep you safe,” he said. “That’s one more reason why we’re waiting another two and a half weeks, two more weeks.”

“We want to do it after the winter break. We want all the kids coming back, getting a fresh start,” he added.

“We still know that masking is an effective way to keep kids in school,” said state Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani. “But now schools will have the opportunity to decide for themselves what works best for their community at the local level.

Rapid tests will be made available for all students and staff who want to test themselves upon returning to school from winter break, Lamont said.

With additional reporting by the CTMirror.