Amid rapidly declining COVID-19 cases and pediatric vaccination rates that appear low compared to other age groups, local school district leaders and health officials are moving forward with plans to make mask-wearing in schools optional when the state mandate requiring them ends February 28.
The Public Health Department’s COVID-19 report from February 18 showed Connecticut’s positivity rate had dropped to 3.84%. More than a month earlier, on January 6, during the peak of Omicron’s surge, the test positivity rate had reached 22.81%.
DPH data on COVID-19 vaccinations reported on Feb. 17 showed that statewide, 37.6 percent of children ages 5 to 11 had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This rate is just over half of the state’s vaccination rate among 12 to 15 year olds. The state reported that the vaccination rate for this age group is 72.4%.
Overall, Connecticut’s COVID-19 vaccination rate among all eligible age groups is just over 75%, according to DPH.
In communities around the Meriden area, most local pediatric vaccination rates were below state averages. In Wallingford, 34.79% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 were considered fully immunized. In Southington, the vaccination rate for this age group was 33.08%. In Meriden, it was 27.53%.
In Cheshire, pediatric vaccination rates were considerably higher: 51.79%.
Vaccinations among older children and among staff members in the four districts are significantly higher. Meanwhile, a COVID-19 vaccine for children under five has not yet been authorized by the federal government.
Cheshire School Superintendent Jeffrey Solan, in a message to families sent Thursday, explained school and health officials’ rationale for mask-optional when the state’s term expires .
“As the pandemic seems to be loosening its grip, we still have this goal of providing safe access for all children and staff every day. When the Governor announced that it would be a local decision, I sought the advice of the same three people I turned to who helped us make sure we went to school at full time last year and this year. They are our Chesprocott Health District Executive Director, our District Medical Officer, and our District Nursing Supervisor,” Solan wrote. The group identified three criteria for determining whether to mandate masks locally: the rate of test positivity, the rate of cases per 100,000 and the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations.
“The team estimated that meeting 2 of 3 of these criteria would provide a high probability that our ability to get people into school would not be interrupted,” Solan wrote.
Solan said the district has achieved two of three steps “to safely transition to a mask-optional environment” as of March 1.
They have what Solan called “extraordinarily high vaccine prevalence” in the community and school district, and a test positivity rate that has fallen to 6.1%, below the 10% threshold authorities had set. as a worrying rate. The third measure, the rate of cases per 100,000, was still above the threshold of 15 cases per 100,000, meaning that this factor had still not been reached, Solan explained.
Meanwhile, in all districts, masks will still be required on school buses, where federal guidelines will continue to be followed.
Solan and other district leaders have recognized the importance of keeping immunocompromised students, staff and their families safe. Solan said at the start of the pandemic, the tools to protect these populations were not available.
“We have reached the point where they are,” he said. “…The good news is that there are more tools available to protect immunocompromised people.”
On Friday evening, the state Department of Public Health released updated guidelines for local schools and health officials that appear to be consistent with measures local leaders were already planning to implement. These guidelines stated that “our communities can begin to move the management of COVID-19 in schools from a pandemic emergency response model to one that aligns with a more public health approach. standard for the management and control of respiratory viral diseases (eg, influenza).”
This model, according to the guidelines, would focus COVID-19 response efforts on outbreak clusters in schools and when community transmission increases significantly.
In its guidelines, the DPH listed COVID-19 outbreak response strategies that would include a temporary local universal masking policy, reinstating student cohort measures based on level of transmission, limiting visitors and notifying potentially exposed students and staff of possible testing.
In Southington, Superintendent Steven Madancy has alerted families that the district will no longer require or enforce mask-wearing in schools from February 28.
In the February 17 letter, Madancy stressed that continuing to wear masks is a personal choice “and that it is important to respect the privacy and individual choice that staff and students can make regarding mask wearing. . No one should question, judge, or ostracize anyone for their individual choice, as they are unaware of everyone’s unique circumstances that may impact their decision to mask or not. Please reinforce this with your children at home,” he wrote.
Officials say mitigation strategies other than mask-wearing, including protocols for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, as well as distancing during lunches, will continue.
Wallingford School Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi also informed families on Friday that wearing a mask on school grounds will be optional from February 28.
Bellizzi explained that mask wearing, while welcome, would not be enforced by school district personnel unless required by public health orders, or if a localized coronavirus outbreak were to occur.
“This decision will be made in consultation with local health officials,” Bellizzi said.
Dr. Juan C. Salazar, chief medical officer at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said local leaders make decisions about masks based on a determination of risk, similar to the measures Solan described. This starts with assessing the level of disease transmission and then assessing test positivity rates. Vaccination rates and protective immunity based on previous infections are the third factor.
Salazar noted that in the state’s largest cities, transmission rates are still high and pediatric vaccinations are still significantly lower than in other municipalities.
Salazar said that while masks aren’t required by many districts, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be worn. Parents need to assess the risk of their children becoming ill themselves or the risk of them bringing the virus home and thus infecting someone else in their household.
“If you have a relative at home who is immunocompromised, whether it’s from disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, you don’t want to bring the virus home,” Salazar said. “These children should mask up.”
Meriden officials have also opted to make mask-wearing voluntary in school buildings. The decision was officially announced at the Meriden Board of Education meeting on February 15.
Lea Crown, the city’s director of health and human services, said in an email that she and school department heads regularly discuss COVID-19 mitigation strategies and deliberate on the mask mandate. school in the past two weeks. Crown said she expects further guidance from the state’s DPH regarding the use of science-based metrics to inform decision-making.
Local health care providers, including the community health center, will continue to offer vaccines to everyone age five and older. The CHC holds clinics at its State Street, Meriden location on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Meriden Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr. said the local decision to lift the school mask mandate “did not come with a wave of the hat.” It was a common sense decision, he said.
“Our mitigation strategies will continue. The additional people we have hired to disinfect and clean will continue to do so. We will continue to do lunches like we do and class setups like they do,” Kosienski said. “…We will continue to follow the rule.”
Meriden Federation of Teachers President Lauren Mancini-Averitt explained in an email that the union’s executive board and building representatives also discussed phasing out masks.
“I think masking is here to stay for many. In schools, we work daily on the social-emotional aspect of our students, and frankly our peers,” Mancini-Averitt wrote. “We must continue to encourage those who feel comfortable wearing a mask to continue to do so. Some of our staff and students will be double masking, washing tables, and pursuing all mitigation strategies until this pandemic is truly over.
“As humans, teachers, colleagues and peers, we should continue to allow people to approach this masking issue in any way that makes them feel comfortable and for as long as they want,” he said. she continued. “For my part, I will continue to mask myself in the classroom and in the building.”