Kindergarten students at Casimir Pulaski Elementary in Meriden in August. Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday said the statewide mask mandate for students and staff would end at the end of February. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Gov. Ned Lamont recommended Monday that the statewide mask mandate for students and staff in school buildings cease at the end of February.

Lamont signaled recently that he has been reevaluating the school mask requirement. His announcement follows a decision by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to end the mask mandate in his state’s schools.

The legislature is expected to vote this week on codifying Lamont’s remaining executive orders into law, including the school mask mandate. Their actions would give Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker the power to decide whether to leave the requirement in place or rescind it. The Lamont administration, including Russell-Tucker, indicated Monday that they would halt the mandate beginning March 1.

In the coming weeks, school district leaders will get to decide whether to impose their own mask mandates once the state’s edict runs out.

“We are hopeful that this is the next step toward the normalcy that we’re all working so hard to get back to for students,” Russell-Tucker said.

Lamont pointed to vaccinations and booster shots in highlighting why he was urging an end to the mask requirement.

“I think we’re in a very different place than we were six months ago, certainly a very different place than we were a year ago,” he said. “The biggest difference I can tell you is the fact that we now have the tools to keep ourselves safe.

“Back then, if Typhoid Mary or COVID Ken walked into a store, they had to be masked because they can put themselves at risk, and they could put everybody else around them at risk. I think today with boosters, given vaccines, given the N95 masks, you are in a better position to keep yourself safe. Your child is in a better position to keep him or herself safe.”

Given plunging case and hospitalization rates — the state COVID test positivity rate stood at 4.77% Monday and hospitalizations fell to 631, a decrease of 154 since Friday — Lamont and state Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani said the decision should now be in the hands of local districts.

“We still know that masking is an effective way to keep kids in school,” Juthani said. “But now schools will have the opportunity to decide for themselves what works best for their community at the local level.

“We know that respiratory viruses transmit, and if a community decides that they want to keep it in place for a few more weeks, that’s up to them. They will have that opportunity to weigh in on that. But they won’t be required by us at this point.”

Lamont said the state can pivot in the coming days or weeks if the case rates again begin to rise.

“If ‘zombie-cron’ comes along and it spikes up as fast as its sister omicron, we would reserve the right to make a change in order to keep you safe,” he said. “That’s one more reason why we’re waiting another two and a half weeks, two more weeks.”

“We want to do it after the winter break. We want all the kids coming back, getting a fresh start,” he added.

Rapid tests will be made available for all students and staff who want to test themselves upon returning to school from winter break, he said.

COVID cases in schools have steadily decreased over the last month. The state reported that 3,904 K-12 students tested positive for COVID, as of Thursday. Of those students, 1,145 were not fully vaccinated, 1,036 were fully vaccinated and 1,723 were unknown. There were also 695 positive staff cases reported in total.

But Connecticut surpassed 10,000 COVID-related deaths last week, and although statewide cases have also declined over the last month, they continue to mount.

The debate over Connecticut’s mask mandate in schools has been raging throughout the pandemic. Many families have shown up to local and state Board of Education meetings over the last several months, and others have filed lawsuits against the governor, calling for an end to the policy.

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said although she asked for an extension on the mask mandate when positive COVID cases in the state were higher than they are now, she is “trusting the medical professionals in Connecticut.”

“My stance is we listen to the Department of Public Health,” she said in an interview with CT Mirror. “If they’re willing to move it to a local decision, they’re going to provide us with some guidelines about how those decisions should be made, and that they’re comfortable [with doing that].”

But educators alongside school employee unions throughout the state have recently urged the governor to continue to implement mandated masking.

Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias told reporters during a press conference following the governor’s on Monday that she fears the decision is being made due to social pressures.

Dias said a majority of the CEA’s members believe the decision is premature and that they’d like a little more time before taking the mandate away. She said educators are concerned that if the mandate ends on a certain date, then schools could end up seeing really high transmission rates.

“For us, truthfully, that’s about attendance, it’s about being able to be present for our students, to be educators,” Dias said. “It’s about our students being present to learn. So it’s not so much that there’s this overwhelming fear as much as there’s an overwhelming frustration that we can’t do what we need to get done if there’s a high transmission rate in schools.”

But she added that if Juthani is saying Feb. 28 makes sense because that is what the health factors indicate and is willing to revisit the decision if a new variant happens to shift the trends, then she has “an obligation to respect that” because of her commitment to respecting the health professionals throughout the pandemic.

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Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.

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Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.