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Stonington High School Principal Mark Friese encourages students to stop and put on their masks at the start of the 2020-21 school year. Sun file photo

STONINGTON — When students return home from school at the end of the day on Feb. 28, the decision of whether to wear a mask the following day will be turned over to their families.

Following a lengthy public hearing focused on the district’s COVID-19 protocols Thursday evening that brought dozens of emotional parents and students to the podium to share their stories, members of the Stonington Board of Education voted unanimously to end the mask mandate in town schools and instead promote kindness, community and mask choice.

The motion also sought to retain the rights and protect those who would prefer to continue to wear a mask on a daily basis to protect themselves, however, and members of the board agreed to monitor and revisit the policy if there is a spike in cases or to seek other mitigation if there is any evidence of bullying, whether by those wearing or not wearing a mask.

“Any decision we make is going to come with a risk,” said board member Heidi Simmons. “If we go with choice, you are the ones who make the decision, and if we choose a mandate, we are making that decision and taking on that liability.”

“I think at this point, we need to do something in which the board, the schools and the community can feel like a team. You are the stakeholders and we should make the mask a choice for families,” she continued. “The schools and board will be responsible for overseeing that choice and making sure it remains safe for all students and staff.”

The decision came following a nearly two-hour public comment period that brought a crowd to the Stonington High School auditorium on Thursday evening for a special meeting on masks. The purpose was to hear from the public as districts across the state started to decide for themselves the best way to proceed after Gov. Ned Lamont’s mask mandate in schools is lifted at the end of the month.

The meeting drew dozens of participants to speak, each part of the in-person-only comment period, and a variety of emotional pleas from parents and students.

Some were aggressive in stating that those wanting masks “were committing child abuse,” while others sought a more collaborative option that allowed for mask choice, and still others spoke simply on their own experiences in wearing masks and the damage it caused them both mentally and physically.

The message coming from those who spoke was clear, however: the vast majority told the board that it is time to let children take their masks off.

Parent Jacqueline Lagasse, who works as a nurse practitioner, said that despite some of the negative comments from those who strongly support or oppose masks, the issue has always been far more middle-ground, and there have been legitimate, scientific studies from both sides that both support or find issue with use of masks.

“I won’t stand here and say that everyone here with varying opinions is either part of a mob or follow pseudo-science. I know many professionals and colleagues who support masks, and there are many others who support mask choice,” she said. “You will find studies everywhere, legitimate studies, that say wearing masks are effective or say masks aren’t as effective as they should be. It’s time for it to be the parents’ choice.”

LaGasse, who echoed sentiments shared by many others, was among more than a dozen speakers who received applause for calling on the district to lift the mandate. While those opposed to mask mandates heavily outweighed those speaking in favor, several students from Stonington High School also spoke about their own desire to see the district wait longer before lifting the mandate.

Kyle Lowry, the Stonington High student representative to the Board of Education, said he conducted a survey of 473 high school students and 50.7% supported removing the mask mandate and 36.6% voted in favor of keeping it (some indicated no preference). Of those in favor of keeping the mask mandate, Lowry and fellow student government member Kathleen Glenn said there were a number of reasons cited, including concerns over those who are more vulnerable and fear of a spike that could impact spring events including prom or graduation.

“We have not had a normal year of high school since our freshman year and we have missed so many events,” Glenn said. “With COVID cases finally dwindling, now is not the time to take off our masks. A month ago, we were missing school due to a widespread outbreak in our community. We are worried that taking the masks off prematurely will put the spring events that we have waited four years for in jeopardy.”

Board members shared their own concerns for the students, and Chairman Farouk Rajab ended the meeting by asking that the board continue to put the students first as they always have, and to work together to safely help encourage a return to normalcy in a way where even the most vulnerable families can still keep themselves safe.

In turning the matter over to the board to vote, Rajab said he wanted to see the board continue to monitor the situation and wanted school staff to guard students’ rights to wear or not wear a mask, free from ridicule.

“After the mandate is lifted, I want it on record that the district encourages any student or staff member who wants to wear a mask to continue to feel free and comfortable to do so,” he said.

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