August 19, 2022

Op-Ed: Eliminating Mask Requirement in Lyme-Old Lyme Schools is Premature, Shortsighted

Compared to the peak of the Omicron surge three weeks ago, case numbers are decreasing — both locally and nationally.

Compared to where we were before Omicron — from summer through Thanksgiving — case numbers are still high.

With that said, we are seeing fewer people getting COVID, and that positive trend is likely to continue. The period of the pandemic where masks are required is definitely drawing to a close.

Recently, the school board and the superintendent announced that they are lifting the mask requirement on February 28th. There are a range of problems with their communication, including the fact that they will stop reporting positive cases in schools in a timely way this spring, but this piece focuses on the specific issue of the mask requirement.

The decision to eliminate the mask requirement — made largely without feedback from the larger school community — is premature and shortsighted. Unfortunately, both their choice and the process of making that choice are consistent with the district’s refusal to commit to layered mitigation strategies throughout the pandemic, and especially during the recent Omicron surge.

Since January 2 and February 18, 2022, the district has reported 138 people who have tested positive for COVID. Because the district chooses not to do systemic testing in schools, the real case count is probably higher. But the reality is we don’t know what’s happening in the schools relative to COVID. The lack of testing, the continued positive cases, and the generally vague communication from the district doesn’t create trust.

Students and staff are on winter break from February 18th through the 28th. Lifting the mask requirements on February 28th means that students will be bringing back any exposure that they might have had over their holiday and dropping it into the school environment. This is incredibly unfair to people who take reasonable precautions, because in a pandemic individual choice impacts community realities.

Because the superintendent and school board are choosing to lift the mask requirement on the 28th, they are making schools the place where risk and benefit both get inequitably redistributed. People who haven’t taken precautions against COVID, and people who aren’t wearing masks, will expose people who have taken precautions to greater risk. Conversely, those who have taken precautions and weak masks are actively creating a situation where everyone has lower risk of exposure — including those who take no precautions.

This is where the lie of “individual responsibility” against the backdrop of a global pandemic becomes obvious: we have a collective obligation to each other, and people can use their individual choice in a way that undermines the long term safety of the larger community.

Lifting the mask requirement now disproportionately and unfairly impacts people who need to take additional precautions because they are immunocompromised, live with someone who is immunocompromised, or is at a greater risk for negative outcomes from COVID.

The way forward is obvious: keep the mask requirement in place a few weeks longer, into mid-March. This approach gives cases an additional few weeks to subside, would allow the weather to become warmer so people can make more use of outdoor spaces, and would avoid the impact of people bringing their exposure back to the schools after the break.

Additionally, the district should put a mask requirement in place for the week following Spring Break. Cases have generally surged after breaks, and we have no reason to assume differently.

And, of course, if case numbers don’t subside in schools, or if we have another spike in cases when the next variant arrives, we need to look at layered mitigation strategies, including improved air filtration and requiring mask use.

Everyone wants to return to some version of “normal” – whatever that is. But by prematurely removing masking requirements, the district ensures that any return to “normal” will remain more elusive than it needs to be.

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of William Fitzgerald of Old Lyme.