The debate over masks is finally turning local.
When the statewide school mask mandate comes to a close on Feb. 28, all signs point to the question being laid in the laps of Cheshire’s Board of Education. Unless something unforeseen happens between now and March 1, the community and its leaders will determine whether mandates continue on or are ended.
School Superintendent Jeff Solan has already planned out the likely course the District is about to take, stating that the decision on masks will be determined by hard data. With the community’s vaccination rates already high, it comes down to case and positivity rates. If Cheshire falls below a pre-determined threshold for either of those two metrics, the District will move to a mask-optional model. If not, the District will continue to require that masks be worn by all inside schools.
As Solan acknowledged in a video message to parents last week, neither he nor members of the BOE are epidemiologists, so making decisions about public health can be tricky. As such, Solan has sought expert advice and come up with his roadmap based on those conversations. It’s an admirable and understandable course of action, and Solan, in doing so, has provided more clarity about the immediate future of this controversial requirement than virtually anyone at the state level has throughout the pandemic.
So much of the frustration over the last two years has stemmed from the “not knowing.” Would restrictions be lifted, sustained, or strengthened? There were rarely any specific benchmarks offered to let people know when protocols would be eased or removed, leaving many to just wait to hear from state leaders.
With this “two-thirds” roadmap, Cheshire’s community knows what to expect. If, by the time the Governor’s mandates expire on Feb. 28, the positivity rate has dropped below 10% and/or there are 15 cases or less per 100,000 residents reported, then local schools will move to mask-optional. If not, the masks stay on.
As BOE Chair Tony Perugini acknowledged to The Herald, any decision made by the District is likely to anger a segment of the community. That’s an important point for all to remember as Cheshire begins to navigate this topic: Not everyone is going to agree on the best path forward, and the concerns of all parents, on both sides, should be considered. Everyone is a part of this town and everyone has a right to expect their opinions to be heard and respected, even if the ultimate decision isn’t one they prefer.
As such, it would seem that, ultimately, moving as quickly as possible to a mask-optional policy is the most sensible approach, especially for the long-term. That allows everyone to make their own choices for themselves and family.
Vaccines are available to everyone 5 years of age and older. N95 masks are also widely available and, according to experts, provide at least one-way protection for the wearer. The prevalence of natural immunity as well as high vaccination rates mean more and more people of all ages are protected against the worst effects of the illness, though not necessarily from catching it.
People have a number of tools at their disposal to protect themselves against this virus, and putting the decision about masks in individual hands seems a very reasonable action at this stage of the pandemic.
Plus, making masks optional means the District won’t find itself seesawing back and forth between removing and instituting mask mandates on a regular basis.
None of this is easy. As Solan stated to The Herald, everyone is trying to navigate difficult decisions as best as possible, in an environment where the issue of masks has been plagued by misinformation, exaggeration, and lack of context surrounding data. Moving rapidly towards handing the decision over to individual families seems like the best course to take.