Connecticut (WABC) -- Connecticut's COVID-19 safety protocol for masks to be worn in all schools and childcare centers expired Monday, leaving the determination to local districts.
Governor Ned Lamont announced earlier this month that he would let the mandate lapse, endorsing a plan developed in consultation with Connecticut Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani and Connecticut State Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker.
"Connecticut is seeing a dramatic decline in cases caused by the omicron variant, and children over the age of 5 have had the ability to get vaccinated for more than three months now," Lamont said. "With this in mind, I think we are in a good position to phase out the requirement that masks be worn in all schools statewide and shift the determination on whether to require this to the local level."
The plan was contingent upon the Connecticut General Assembly voting to extend the governor's existing executive order that enables the public health commissioner with the ability of implementing mask requirements in certain settings.
The public health and education departments are recommending various metrics for districts to consider as they determine whether to continue requiring masks, including the prevalence of local COVID-19 infections, the vaccination status of students, staff and the community, and the amount of planning that's still needed to accommodate students and staff who might be at greater risk of infection.
"Prior to making any significant changes to the mitigation strategies in schools (including universal mask use), the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Connecticut State Department of Education encourage school districts to consider and discuss the unique complexities of school environments, the environmental conditions inside their school buildings, the health of their school populations, and the conditions in their immediate and surrounding communities," according to one of the two documents released evening to districts.
The agencies also included recommended steps districts should take if there is an outbreak, including reinstating a localized mask mandate, limiting the mixing of grades and classrooms during meals and recess, and limiting outside visitors.
The reaction has been mixed, with the state's largest cities - including Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury and Stamford - all planning to still require face masks in schools. Many other districts have decided to make masks optional.
"These kids have been through this for a couple of years," Fairfield parent Frank Klein said. "It's time to get back to normal, respectfully, respecting each other's opinions, let's get forward and let's be healthy."
Some students are grateful for the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want to mask or not indoors.
"People were all very respectful about it," sophomore Kennedy Klein said. "I think a lot more people weren't wearing it than I expected. I was one of the few that was one of the few that actually was. But I'm fine with them not wearing it and they are fine with me wearing it."
West Hartford is among the dozens of communities in Connecticut that have decided to make masks optional.
"The reality now is that the Department of Public Health has stated that in many places in Connecticut, it is the right time, and safe, to move away from mandatory masking," West Hartford Superintendent Thomas Moore wrote in a recent statement to parents. "March should be a time when West Hartford public schools can move to optional mask wearing."
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state organization that oversees high school sports, announced it will not require student-athletes to wear masks at outdoor and indoor practices or competitions, as of Feb. 28. However, the updated guidance said student-athletes, officials, coaches, game workers and spectators will follow masking rules issued by the facilities where events are held.
Lamont recommended that masks remain mandatory in other settings, including healthcare facilities, facilities housing vulnerable populations, public and private transit, and correctional facilities.
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