NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Public Schools is instituting a “masks optional” policy for its buildings, beginning early next week. Masks will still be required on school buses.
The switch will take place Monday if school is not called off Friday because of the incoming snowstorm, or Tuesday if it is, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said.
Board of Education members called the decision very difficult before voting 5-3 in favor of making the move, during a special meeting Thursday.
That came hours after Mayor Harry Rilling lifted the city-wide mask mandate.
The State legislature voted to leave masking up to school districts as of Feb. 28. NPS responded by surveying parents, and Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella reported these results:
- 42% wanted masks
- 42% wanted masks to be optional
- 16% said no masks
That was based on responses from 2,486 households, she said.
BoE members queried Health Department staff before making their choice. Norwalk epidemiologist Brian Weeks said that 35.15% of the city’s 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated and 85.49% of the kids aged 12 to 17.
Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sandra Faioes said that as of the 20th, NPS had 13 positive cases. On the 23rd, “we tested 351 students and we had zero positive cases.”
The data shows transmissions happen much more frequently in households than in schools, Faioes said. “That is something that is not unique to Norwalk. It’s across most school districts and across the nation.”
Dr. Norman Weinberger, a Norwalk Board of Health member and a pediatrician, said he wouldn’t drop the mask mandate if it were up to him, because he’s “very concerned” about the 5- to 11-year-olds.
“We are seeing more hospitalizations on these children,” he said. “We are also seeing more long-term effects of COVID. In the young children, multiple systems syndromes is occurring mostly in the unvaccinated. So, this is a danger. And if we can find a way to protect them, I would.”
He reviewed the history: the Delta variant began tailing off and then Omicron came in. Now, with infections dropping, there’s the BA.2 variant, and “we actually don’t know what’s going to happen…. This is not going away. And we’re going to have surges again.”
The resolution passed by Board members specifies that the mandate may be reinstated if conditions warrant it.
Voting in favor were:
- Colin Hosten
- Erica DePalma
- Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig
- Diana Carpio
- Sheri McCready Brown
- Godfrey Azima
- Kara Nelson Baekey
- Janine Randolph
“I believe very strongly that the risks in development and socialization and access to a child’s education now outweighs the benefits in masking,” DePalma said.
Children in speech therapy may not be able to see oral motions they need to mimic, children who can’t hear can’t read lips and it’s difficult to read facial expressions with masks on, she said.
“This is a long-term situation. We cannot fail our children in education,” Carpio said.
“I find this a torturous vote. There are very strong data points I see on both sides of this issue,” Flaherty-Ludwig said. “But my feeling is that it is time to lift the mask mandate.”
Nelson Baekey said she’s “all for mask choice” but the vaccination rates for young children aren’t high enough.
“I am concerned about this new variant BA.2,” she said. “I think we don’t know yet what the ramifications of it are. We just had a school break here. There were a lot of people traveling and now coming back into our schools, so I am worried about a surge there.”
Yes, the surrounding communities dropped their mask mandates but Norwalk is a city, and Stamford’s mask mandate is continuing to March 15, and Bridgeport’s to March 31, she said.
“Yes, we have been in a pandemic for two years,” she said. “And it’s been a very long, difficult two years for so, so many. But I feel that we are rushing this I think it is premature to lift our mask mandate here in our city.”
Randolph said she also found it to be a “tortuous” decision and she’s concerned about multi-generational households.
“I have been very torn listening to both sides,” Randolph said. “… I know that we’re not seeing particularly the problems with our 5- to 11-year-olds, as far as hospitalizations and you know, overcome with illness, I do feel that we still need to worry about the spread of COVID.”
Azima said he’s in favor of mask options but it’s too soon.
Hosten said he agreed with Weinberger, it would be best if there was a mask mandate continuing everywhere.
“We’re talking about an environment where mask mandates are dropping everywhere. And if I thought keeping a mask mandate in Norwalk Public Schools would move the needle on COVID throughout the city and the state and the country, I would keep the mask mandate,” Hosten said. “I happen to think that we’re trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon by asking our kids to wear a mask when nobody else is. … I think it’s a little unfair for us to ask our kids to solve COVID when nobody else is really even trying.”
“I do understand that folks are tired of wearing masks,” McCready Brown said. “At the same time, our country has lost almost a million people and there’s still 2,000 people dying every day in our country from COVID, which is about equal to like one 9/11 a day. So we’re still in a really critical, a critical area.”
Hosten made a great point, she said.
In addition to the resolution drafted by Attorney Thomas Mooney, the Board also passed an amendment written by Flaherty-Ludwig.
“We agree to support a MASK OPTIONAL approach,” it said. “We view this not as a victory for one side of the debate or another, but rather a step forward together as we deal with the impact of an active COVID-19 pandemic.”
It said, “We encourage supportive discussions within families and within schools as the transition to a Mask Optional approach occurs.”
Estrella said federal mandates require masking on school buses, per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Medically fragile students have the option for homebound learning.
Faioes said NPS will continue its other mitigating strategies, the social distancing, maximum sanitization, keeping accurate data and promoting vaccination.
Estrella said, “We have MERV 13 filters in our ventilation system, which is an enhancement from that we have that we didn’t have previously.”