NORWALK, Conn. — A storm of public speakers at Tuesday’s Norwalk Board of Education meeting, most arguing against continuing the mask mandate in the schools, relayed multiple stories about the effects the pandemic is having on Norwalk’s youngest residents.
“Wearing a mask every day and having these intense protocols for our children have now ingrained in them that there is danger out there even while they are sitting and learning to read with their teacher or trying to talk to a friend,” Lauren Jordan said. “We are teaching them that they are never safe and that this danger is invisible and that they are responsible for this danger.”
The public outcry was followed by Norwalk epidemiologist Brian Weeks explaining that the Omicron variant “has had pretty decent impact in terms of hospitalizations for pediatric patients” and the long-term effects of COVID-19 are unknown. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children has increased with Omicron and “a large proportion” of the Norwalkers who have gotten sick in the last few weeks are children.
The State legislature has given school districts the option to decide whether students should continue to wear masks in schools.
“We are going to be engaging in conversations with the Department of Health and working in collaboration with the City to make recommendations to the Board to determine when it when it’s an appropriate time for us to transition out of masks,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said, after about more than an hour and a half of public comments.
NPS is conducting a survey, asking families how they feel about the issue, a Wednesday email said.
About 30 people spoke against continuing the mask mandate Tuesday, four of them children. Some adults read statements they said were from teachers.
Kerry Rice said she’s an NPS speech language pathologist (SLP) and has seen what two years of mask wearing has done to children.
“There has been a significant increase in speech/sound disorders in 5- and 6-year-olds,” she said.
Lauren Davis said she routinely cringes when she sees her 5-year-old daughter’s cloth mask after seven hours of kindergarten. “It’s covered with dirt, and food and who knows what else and was wet with saliva and I would have to assume germs… can you honestly sit here in good conscience and say that this this dirty piece of fabric is protecting anyone? Of course not. We’re all smarter than that.”
Every student, teacher and administrator should have access to high quality masks and there are other solutions, she said. After awarding mask autonomy, the Board could distributing high quality masks, incorporate more outdoor time and outdoor classroom resources into the curriculum, and teach kids about healthy living.
She said, “As more and more studies come out showing the detrimental impacts masks are having on our developing youth, young people will look back and wonder how we allow this to go on for so long, long after it was clear that the costs were outweighing the benefits.”
Amanda Trimboli said, “My daughter will be in second grade next year. She officially has never been in elementary school without wearing a mask. My son will be in kindergarten next year he’ll be learning how to read and I have no clue what struggles he may face if he is still masked and trying to figure out sounds and phonics.”
And if you think masks are beneficial because children aren’t getting sick as often as they used to, “My children have been sick at least six or seven times from the start of September right up until Christmas break and not from COVID, she said. “I cannot help think it’s because they are breathing in their own bacteria all day. And because they aren’t being exposed to common germs that their immune systems need in order to get stronger so they can fight off viruses and illnesses later in life. That is the real science.”
One teen said, “Due to the COVID pandemic I had lost my entire freshman year. As a sophomore now, the leftover trauma caused from the past from the pandemic has made me feel less of a student than before. I was always told high school would be the best years of my life. However, that is most certainly not the case.”
She said, “My cousin in second grade came up to me and told me he’s never seen his teachers or friends smile before to hear this from someone so young had truly broken my heart.”
Emily Glod said she’s been a social worker for 18 years and over the past two years she’s stood beside both her own children and her clients as” they have experienced trauma after trauma” and “loss after tragic loss.”
“Masks have helped to reduce the spread of the virus,” she said. “I do believe this, however, we now have science that strongly supports other methods of reducing the spread that are more effective.”
Her 9-year-old son is very bright but has gone back into therapy, saying, “COVID has been extremely difficult for him,” according to Glod.
A Wolfpit Elementary School second grader said, “I really want these masks off because it’s a struggle to learn, especially different language kids.”
Kyle Baker said his son was “perpetually sick last year, even with the changes of masks in his backpack. He wasn’t always aware to change his masks promptly on time as soon as they got wet. He’s only 7 years old.”
The boy “developed asthma for the first time in his life within a month of being back to school in fall 2020, due to all the elements his mask was causing,” Baker continued. “Not only this, he caught covid anyway from a classmate regardless of wearing his mask as directed.”
His younger child cried on the school bus on the way home and was afraid to take off his mask as “it filled completely to the point where he couldn’t get any oxygen through it and he had trouble breathing. Once he came off the bus we had to call 911,” Baker said.
“The only thing these masks are doing is teaching children that fresh air is toxic, and people around them are always sick,” Brendan Herlihy said. “That is a mental illness. Suicides in school aged children are up over 100% with many surviving family members citing isolation and loneliness as the reason why.”
One woman read a statement from someone she said has been a teacher for 20 years.
“Students who are multilingual learners and are already self-conscious often mumble with a mask or choose to hide behind the mask rather than to enunciate,” the teacher said. “… It’s not uncommon for the child to give up sharing because no one can hear them.”
At least three people spoke another point of view.
“I ask you today to not only consider science when deciding when to unmask at our schools, but also consider the legalities of unmasking prematurely,” Sharon Baanante said.
Weeks presented a COVID-19 update, then was questioned by the Board.
An Omicron subvariant, BA.2, is 1.5 times as infectious as Omicron, he said. Omicron itself is responsible for most infections but BA.2 is at about 4%. As of Feb. 5, Norwalk’s transmission rate decreased to a new case rate of 29.8 per 100,000 residents and a percent positivity of 8.9%. The 5- to 11-year-old age group is “still only at about 32.12% for fully vaccinated.”
He was asked to speak about masks.
“The way to look at this is as spectrum of protection,” Weeks said, explaining the efficacy of cloth masks and working his way up to N95 surgical masks, which not only filter 95% of particles but also have electrostatic conductivity that attracts a virus and keeps it on the outside of the mask.
But the mask is not only to protect the wearer, “It’s also most effective when somebody’s wearing it when they are infected with the virus, so they don’t run the risk of transmitting it to others,” he said. “That’s where it’s actually most important.”
The impact on the pediatric population is still being studied “but it actually has accelerated the development, say, certain chronic diseases like diabetes in the pediatric patients,” Weeks said. Some people test positive for weeks or even months, “and therefore if your body’s still responding to it, an immune response, it could actually still render impacts long term, such as your nervous system damage, cardiovascular system damage that has been seen, and even pediatric population, too. So it’s something else to factor in our decision making. Nobody wants to get sick.”